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Miracle Plant Consumed by Ancient Greeks Rediscovered 2000 Years Later

October 4, 2022

One of the most sought-after products in the Mediterranean world is believed to have been rediscovered in Asia Minor after believed to have been extinct for 2000 years. Silphion, a golden-flowered plant, was considered a treasure for Ancient Greek physicians, who used it to cure diseases.

For Roman chefs, this botanical survivor was a gastronomic staple, necessary for spicing up an everyday meal, adding a saltier sensation.

During the reign of Julius Caesar, more than a thousand pounds of the plant was amassed beside gold in Rome’s treasuries, as silphion trees were valued by weight at the same price as silver.

Silphion disappeared from the ancient Mediterranean world seven centuries after the plant was initially documented growing along the coast Cyrenaica, what we know today as modern Libya.

A coin of Magas of Cyrene c. 300–282/75 BC. The reverse side depicts silphion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to National Geographic, Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder said, “just one stalk has been found” adding, “and it has been given to the Emperor Nero.” This was the last documented report of silphion.

Professor Mahmut Miski, who specializes in pharmacognosy, came across the plant 40 years ago, and after decades of consequent research he suspects he has rediscovered the last holdouts of the ancient plant two thousand years after vanishing from history books, and nearly a thousand miles from where it once grew. He believes the Ferula Drudeana that grows on Mount Hasan is the elusive ancient plant.

“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,” he added.

According to a report by National Geographic, the researcher found it has similarities with the silphion plant, which line up with old botanical texts and images of the plant on Ancient Greek coins.

According to a 2021 study published in the journal ‘Plants’ by Miski and his team, Ferula drudeana had similarities with the silphion as described in ancient text and depicted on Cyrenaican coins, from thick branching roots to celery-like leaves.

Miski noticed that both plants have the same thick branching root, yellow flowers, and powerful medicinal purposes. Ferula Drudeana has anticancer compounds and anti-inflammatory properties much like those known to be found in silphium. The researcher has received a grant to gather samples of Ferula, which is in the same family as carrots, fennel, and parsley, and has the reputation for yielding many novel-disease fighting compounds.

The plant, which was called silphion by the Ancient Greeks, was once the most sought-after product in the Mediterranean. Photo by alice.zoo/Instagram

During Miski’s study on Mount Hassan, he figured the plant had thirty secondary metabolites that have medical purposes, including cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, and contraceptive properties, for which it was also famed in the ancient world.

He believes there are many compounds yet to be discovered that will benefit the medical industry.

The similarities in appearance however were not the only link. According to Miski’s research, the first silphion appeared after a “heavy spring downpour,” which, in those days, was called “black rain.”

According to Miski and his team, “we find it stated by the most trustworthy among the Greek writers that this plant made its appearance near the gardens of the Hesperides and the Greater Syrtis immediately after the earth had been soaked on by a shower as black as pitch.” This event took place seven years prior to the foundation of the city of Cyrenae.

Erica Rowan, an associate professor in archaeobotany at Royal Holloway University of London, found Miski’s speculations credible. “The ancients were very good at transporting things,” Rowan noted. “There’s no reason why people from Cyrenaica couldn’t have brought the seeds to Cappadocia and planted them. They’re similar enough with a Mediterranean climate. And this Ferula species does look like what’s shown on the coins.”

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