The plant Silphium silphium

The remarkable history of the plant Silphium silphium inspired us to give our biobusiness organisation the name Sylphium Life Sciences. According to a Greek legend Battus and his men arrived around 631 BC at the Lybian coast. The Greeks established the city Cyrene. The city was located on the edge of a fertile plateau now named Jabal al-Akhdar.

The plant Silphium silphium also known as silphion grew at this plateau. The Greeks believed the plant was a gift from the god Apollo. Cyrenaica was the only place were this plant was growing. Theophrastus (Aristotle’s successor in the peripatetic school and as strong a botanist as Aristotle) claimed (Hort 1968) that silphium could not be cultivated. Pliny the Elder described silphium as a plant with numerous thick roots, fennel-like (Ferula spp) stalk that is not hollow and leaves like parsley (Parejko, 2003).
The plant was valued in ancient times because of its many medical applications but also as a food source, and seasoning for food. Perfumes were made from its flowers, the stalk was used for food while the juice (Cyrenaic juice) and tuber like roots were used to make a variety of medical potions. Reported medical uses for the juice included remedies for cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, fluid retention, seizures, aches and pains. The sap was supposed to be able to remove warts and other growths. (Tatman) In addition, Pliny the Elder wrote that silphium could be used for a variety of diverse conditions including treatment of leprosy, to restore hair, cleanse retained afterbirth from the womb and as an antidote for poisons.
Potions made from silphium were supposedly among the most effective birth-control methods known at the time. Preparations used for birth control included a tea made from the leaves, a “pea-sized” ball of sap mixed with wine and a suppository containing the juice. The timing of administration suggests it probably functioned as an abortifacient similar to preparations made from related plant species. (Tatman) Silphium was for the colony a major source of revenue because of widespread demand and the local monopoly on supply. The plant gave wealth and prosperity to the city of Kyrene.
After the adoption of coinage in the 6th century B.C. representations of the silphium plant and its seed pods appeared on the coins of Cyrene. Over time the representation of the silphium plant on the coins evolved from life like (type I) to highly stylized (type III). The highly stylized representations of the silphium plant evoke images of an erect penis and the seed pods on the coins look like testicles. The plant was linked to amorous performance.

type I type II type III
Representation of the silphium plant on the coinage of Kyrenaika*
* Adapted from Robinson. A Catalogue of Greek Coins in the Britisch Museum – Cyrenaica. 1927, Vol 29, pp 253-254, Oxford University Press London

Circulated widely through the ancient Greek economy these coins were advertisements for using Cyrenaic juice as an effective ingredient of love potions. A simple trick because the overseas consumers purchasing the processed product were unaware of what the plant really looked like. (Koeper and Moerman 2000)
The export of silphium became one of the mainstays of the Cyrenian economy. However mismanagement of the environment / nature of Cyrenaica, the natural habitat of the silphium plant, and overexploitation yielded an enormous decline in its abundance. In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar notes that in his own lifetime the plant had not been seen in its native habitat for many years. The last known stalk was valued at its weight in gold and sent to the emperor Nero. Pliny the Elder discussed in its Natural History published A.D. 77 in great detail the Sylphium sylphium plant, its distribution, and the likely causes of its extinction.

Parejko, K. Conservation biology (2003) vol. 17 No. 3 pp. 925-927
Hort, A. Translator (1968) Theophrastus: enquiry into plants. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tatman, J. Silphium: Ancient Wonder Drug
Koeper H.C., Moerman D.E. Herbal Gram (2000) The Journal of the American Botanical Council No. 48 pp 46-49
Sylphium Life Sciences – The making of natural compounds…