Extinction, Laserpicium.

Back in 2005, I posted about “Laserpithium” (i.e., lāserpīcium) and silphium; now graywyvern (who blogs at Diwan: A Wind) sends me this poem about them by A. E. Stallings:

Extinction, Laserpicium

   Quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
   lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis

   —Catullus 7

Consider silphium, extinguished flower,
Kin to the wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace,
Fennel and dill, and rooted now no place
On earth, that once was worth an empress’ dower,
A Caesar’s ransom. Silphium was power
Stored in Rome’s coffers, stamped upon the face
Of silver tetradrachms, a thing to base
The wealth of nations on. Now past its hour,
Stamped out, its numbers harvested to zero,
What properties, what cures were in an ounce
Are lost to us—mere footnote to the pleasure
Out of a poem—“kisses without measure.”
The last stalk ever found, Pliny recounts,
Presented as a rarity to Nero.

I’ve always loved both the name “Queen Anne’s lace” and the flower, even if they call it a weed.

Comments

  1. And from your linked previous post, the ancient silphium was “an umbelliferous plant” (tying it to the flower of William and Mary’s daughter) unlike modern silphium. I was wondering how they were kin.

    Now I wonder why the modern silphium was named for it.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Consider silphium, extinguished flower

    I actually did consider silphium just the other day when reading about the extended family of the carrot. I wondered both why it’s thought to be extinct and why they can be so sure which taxa it belongs to.

  3. Yes, I’ve wondered about both those things.

  4. Silphium was an oral contraceptive, a technology with massive implications for the dynamics of population growth and thus for society as a whole. We’ve seen this more recently since the combined oral contraceptive was developed—very few people marry these days just to have sex, something unremarkable in my youth thirty years ago in believing-Catholic Ireland, and I’m sure unremarkable in Britain and the US in 1940.

    There was every economic and societal reason for the Romans to take a lively interest in whether silphium was actually dying out, and this is why the last of it got the attention of Nero. I see no reason to think the assessment of the Romans was incorrect, they had every incentive to be right about it, and it was a capable civilisation. I can make no comment on the taxa.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks, Aidan. It’s pretty obvious when you say it. The comment thread on the 2005 post gives a clue to the taxa: There were related varieties that are still known. I should have thought of that too.

  6. why they can be so sure which taxa it belongs to.

    There is an English summary of Dioscorides’ ancient description of the plant here:

    https://tinyurl.com/silphion–oxfordhandbook

    The original Greek text begins on page 430 here:

    https://tinyurl.com/silphion-sprengeledition

    The comparison to giant fennel and to celery make it clear that the plant in question belonged to the family Apiaceae. It is instructive to observe the images of the plant and its seeds on the coinage of Cyrene:

    https://tinyurl.com/silphion–on-coin

    The general shape of the plant resembles members of the genus Ferula, such as Ferula communis

    https://tinyurl.com/Ferulacommunis

    Also note the seeds of F. communis

    https://tinyurl.com/Ferulacommunisseeds

    And of course, the gum hing made from plants of the genus Ferula is a ubiquitous seasoning all over South Asia today.

    I think Linne created the modern genus Silphium in 1753 here:

    https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/358940#page/361/mode/1up

    As far as I can tell, in his descriptions Linne doesn’t drop a hint about why he gave these plants of the family Asteraceae the name of a plant that was undoubtedly of the family Apiaceae. But doubtless he did so because some Silphium have stems covered with aromatic resin and produce an aromatic gum when the stem is cut—Native Americans apparently used this as chewing gum—and these characteristics reminded him of the ancient Greek silphion.

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