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This miracle plant was eaten into extinction 2,000 years ago—or was it?

Silphion cured diseases and made food tasty, but Emperor Nero allegedly consumed the last stalk. Now, a Turkish researcher thinks he’s found a botanical survivor.


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Olivia Brown

2 years ago | 2 min read

From before the rise of Athens to the height of the Roman Empire, one
of the most sought-after products in the Mediterranean world was a
golden-flowered plant called silphion. For ancient Greek physicians,
silphion was a cure-all, prized for everything from stomach pain to wart
removal. For Roman chefs, it was a culinary staple, crucial for spicing
up an everyday pot of lentils or finishing an extravagant dish of
scalded flamingo. During the reign of Julius Caesar, more than a
thousand pounds of the plant was stockpiled alongside gold in Rome’s
imperial treasuries, and silphion saplings were valued at the same price
as silver.

But just seven centuries after the adored plant was first documented growing along the coast of Cyrenaica,
in what is now modern Libya (according to one chronicler, it was in 638
B.C. after a “black rain” fell) silphion disappeared from the ancient
Mediterranean world.

“Just one stalk has been found,” Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder lamented in his Natural History in the first century A.D., “and it has been given to the Emperor Nero.”

0:30Bees
partake in flowering Silphion in central Turkey in May 2021. Professor
Mahmut Miski observed that insects drawn to the plant's sap began to
mate, reminding him of ancient accounts of silphion's alleged
aphrodisiac qualities.

Left: Istanbul University professor Mahmut Miski holds a flowering stalk of Ferula drudeana
in the foothills of Mount Hasan. He first encountered the plant in
1983, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that the researcher
started noting its similarities with ancient silphion.
Right: These mature Ferula drudeana
plants are believed to be around 15 years old. Abundant snowmelt in
2022 irrigated the site they grow in central Turkey, resulting in a
riotous bloom of intoxicating flowers.

Since
the Middle Ages, botanical explorers inspired by ancient accounts of
this remarkable plant have sought it on three continents, and always in
vain. Many historians view the disappearance of silphion as the first
recorded extinction of any species, plant or animal, and a cautionary
tale in how thoroughly human appetite can erase a species from the wild.

But
is silphion truly extinct? Thanks to a lucky encounter almost 40 years
ago, and decades of subsequent research, a professor at Istanbul
University suspects he has re-discovered the last holdouts of the
ancient plant more than a thousand years after it disappeared from
history books, and nearly a thousand miles from where it once grew.

A “chemical gold mine”

On a sunny morning in October of last year, Mahmut Miski
stood in the boulder-strewn foothills of an active volcano in the
Cappadocia region of central Turkey, sweeping an arm towards a thicket
of grooved, buff-colored stalks shaded by wild pistachio trees. “Welcome
to 'silphion land,'” the 68-year-old professor said, as he stooped to
pull a stalk and its gnarled root from the rocky soil. The root ball—the
chemical factory of the plant—perfumed the air with a pleasant,
slightly medicinal odor, halfway between eucalyptus and pine sap. “To
me, the smell is stimulating, as well as relaxing,” Miski explained.
“You can see why everybody who encounters this plant becomes attached to
it.”



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