Has a Missing Ancient Healing Plant Been Found?

Scientists believe that the legendary silphium is growing in Turkey.

Sep 19, 2023


Plants, Health
Has a Missing Ancient Healing Plant Been Found? | Scientists believe that the legendary silphium is growing in Turkey.

Did classical antiquity just draw closer? Is the modern plant with clusters of tiny golden flowers seen in Turkey, Ferula Drudeana, really the long-lost healing herb, silphium, prized by many Mediterranean nations during the Greek and Roman Empires leading up to the first millennium? The very same multitasking miracle that functioned as an aphrodisiac, medicine, seasoning and even a contraceptive in ancient times? The plant once so valued that it featured on coins and pottery? According to My Modern Met, this is a strong possibility, and one first announced in 2021 in this study

The researcher who connected the dots
In a September 2023 article, the publication reports that Istanbul University professor, Mahmut Miski, joined the dots while cataloging plants in the Ferula genus. He did this on Mount Hassan in Turkey, not  in Cyrene, an ancient Greek city in present-day Libya, where silphium was once documented. Still, this part of Turkey was once home to historical Greek settlements stretching back to antiquity. 

It dawned on this expert on naturally-derived medicines, that the stalks, flowers and leaves of the Ferula Drudeana plant closely resembled the elusive ancient plant, and that he may have stumbled upon a botanical survivor, as National Geographic reports. Significantly too, his research revealed that its compounds offer many benefits attributed to the aromatic ancient herb including anti-inflammatory and contraceptive properties, explains My Modern Met. 

There are other parallels too. Just like with silphium, goats and sheep love eating it according to modern shepherds, while it grows after heavy spring rains My Modern Met documents. And Miski also observed that flying insects drawn to the plant’s sap start to mate, reminding him of ancient accounts covering silphion’s reputed aphrodisiac qualities , as reported by National Geographic. 

The rich history of this fabled panacea
Silphium saplings were once valued at the same price as silver. As detailed by Greek Reporter, writers from classical antiquity wrote that it was even stockpiled in the treasury alongside gold during Julius Caesar’s reign.  It was hard to cultivate, and did best grown in its wild habitat in Cyrene.

National Geographic reports that silphion was a cure-all for ancient Greek physicians. It was used to treat everything from dental pain to baldness, epilepsy and dog bites to scorpion stings, while also used as an aphrodisiac and seasoning. 

The Vintage News shares that silphium was used as an ingredient in perfume to make wearers more alluring, while the sap was held to prevent pregnancy. The Romans referred to it in their songs and poems, and it was the subject of intense study by Theophrastus, considered the father of botany.

When it later became extremely rare, Roman writer and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote that the one stalk found in the first century CE was given to Emperor Nero. 

After that, it had seemed to have disappeared, although multiple fruitless searches were conducted since the Middle Ages. Greek Reporter reveals that historians therefore believe it was the first recorded extinction of any plant or animal species.                                       

A conclusion decades in the making
Significantly, Miski’s conclusion took time, National Geographic emphasizes. Almost forty years have passed since local man, Mehmet Ata, led Misky to a stone enclosure in central Turkey where Ferula drudeana grows. Ata’s family had settled here in Cappadocia, Anatolia, after Greek communities living here since the time of Alexander the Great were expelled from the country in 1923. He believes that almost two millennia ago, a Greek trader or farmer must have planted silphion seeds sent to him from North Africa. 

Erica Rowan, an associate professor of archaeobotany (the study of ancient plant remains within the field of archaeology) at Royal Holloway University in London, finds this notion credible: “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,” she says. 

Alain Touwaide, a historian specializing in medical plants from antiquity, believes that Miski’s team would make a stronger argument that this is the fabled miracle plant of ancient times by isolating more beneficial compounds in the Ferula drudeana plant.

But Miski seems to have the backing of most other experts to date. Researcher Shahina Ghazanfar, for example, an expert in the taxonomy of Middle Eastern plants at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. She told National Geographic that “The striated stems, fruits, and possibly the root all seem to point to the idea that this Ferula species could possibly be a remnant cultivated plant in Anatolia that was known as silphion.”

And, as Greek City Times highlights, this rediscovery may revive medicinal properties that have been dormant for centuries, to heal people today.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.