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.


  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:


    The original Greek text begins on page 430 here:


    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:


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


    Also note the seeds of F. communis


    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:


    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.

  7. So, this poem really is about the kin of wild carrot; Queen Anne’s lace. I was thinking it had a deeper meaning, and maybe it does, like a marriage gone spoiled, completely wasted by the groom? But now that I read it again and again, I read deeper into the real meaning; talking about the extinction of the silphium, however long ago it was used to cure illness ect.

  8. An interesting article was shared today on a forum devoted to field identification of Apiaceae species that I lurk in, and it reminded me of this post on Language Hat from a while ago. The article is available in open access here.

    Mahmut Miski (2021) “Next Chapter in the Legend of Silphion: Preliminary Morphological, Chemical, Biological and Pharmacological Evaluations, Initial Conservation Studies, and Reassessment of the Regional Extinction Event” Plants 10 (1): 102.

    I have no idea how widely Miski’s proposal has been accepted, but now I am dying to smell the resin of Ferula drudeana. (Nomen est omen: Miski looks like Ottoman مسکی miskî “of musk, musky”; cf. Arabic مسكي miskī “ambrette, abelmosk”. Nowadays I encounter Turkish miski only as a kind of very aromatic lime, especially as a soft drink flavor.)

  9. Nat Geo has an article about Miski’s silphion claims (Xerîb, above, links to the scientific paper; the article is more popularly written).

  10. Thanks, that was a great read (with lovely pictures). Even if it can’t be shown to be silphion, it’s certainly quite a find:

    Miski’s hunch that Ferula drudeana would prove to be a chemical gold mine turned out to be correct: Analyses of the root extract identified 30 secondary metabolites—substances which, while they don’t contribute to the primary business of helping a plant grow or reproduce, nonetheless confer some kind of selective advantage. Among the compounds, many of which have cancer-fighting, contraceptive, and anti-inflammatory properties, is shyobunone, which acts on the brain’s gamma-aminobutiric acid (GABA) receptors and may contribute to the plant’s intoxicating smell. Miski believes that future analyses of the plant will reveal the existence of dozens of yet-to-be-identified compounds of medical interest.

    “You find the same chemicals in rosemary, sweet flag, artichoke, sage, and galbanum, another Ferula plant,” the professor marvels. “It’s like you combined half a dozen important medicinal plants in a single species.”

    Now if they can just keep greedheads from re-extincting it…

  11. Helpful Wikipedia, under Ferula:

    The gummy resin of many species of Ferula is used for various purposes:

    Ferula foetida, Ferula assa-foetida and some other species are used to make the spice asafoetida, or hing
    Ferula gummosa makes galbanum
    Ferula hermonis makes zallouh
    Ferula moschata makes sumbul
    Ferula persica or F. szowitziana makes sagapenum
    Ferula marmarica makes “Cyrenaican ammoniacum”
    Ferula ammoniacum makes “Persian ammoniacum”
    Ferula communis subsp. brevifolia makes “Moroccan ammoniacum”
    Silphium was used to make laserpicium

  12. Credit to the farmer who seems aware of the responsibility and a hope that he’ll be able to resist the pressure.

    But imagine the Cappadocian Greek farmers not being expelled and being able to tell about the plant. Even only its name, to turn linguistic,

  13. A recent review thinks that Ferula drudeana doesn’t resemble silphion any more than other Ferula species. I dunno.

  14. Thanks! So far Ferula drudeana is just a new species of Ferula with interesting properties. We can’t conclude that it’s silphion, the source of laser, without other evidence. But even if it isn’t, the find surely will bring the search forward.

  15. Yeah, it’s not exactly a damning demolition:

    Recently, a new candidate species, Ferula drudeana, was proposed to be the actual silphium plant, still in existence, by a researcher in Anatolia. This proposition was justified with the following: ‘A rare and endemic species of Ferula growing near Central Anatolia closely resembles the description and numismatic figures of silphion’. The author went on to describe how the oleo-gum-resin is similar to that described by ancient authors. While we certainly applaud efforts to recover silphium, these assertions must be thoroughly examined. The first assertion is somewhat problematic as Ferula drudeana is morphologically almost indistinguishable from other Ferula species and does not bear any greater resemblance to the crude depictions of silphium on silver coins than does any other candidate plant. The second assertion was that the gum-resin bears a close resemblance to silphium. Yet, just as the gross anatomical morphology of Ferula drudeana does not bear any greater similarity to silphium than other candidate species, it must be pointed out that virtually all Ferula species will produce a gum-resin exudate when either the stalk or the root is cut. As to whether or not the chemical properties of the gum produced by the various Ferula species are more or less similar to ancient silphium, it would require a full molecular study of each species to determine whether or not the gum-resin of Ferula drudeana contains more pharmacologically active substances than any of the other candidate species.

    Finally, while it is certainly possible that the silphium of Cyrene did not go extinct and is hiding in plain sight, the candidate species we have proposed here occupy a similar geographical zone to the original plant. From Herodotus onwards, ancient authors made it clear that silphium only grew in a specific ecological niche between the island of Platea and the Gulf of Syrtis, and it seems unlikely that the silphium of Cyrene survived in Central Anatolia while dying out completely in North Africa. Yet, ‘unlikely’ is not ‘impossible’ and any research that considers the fate of silphium moves the field forward. Perhaps with further research, the assertions of Miski (2021) can be tested by comparing Ferula drudeana with the various other candidate species described above.

    In other words, “I dunno, maybe? Further research is needed!”

  16. Miski actually attempts to eliminate other species of the genus, one by one. Briggs and Jakobsson don’t address his arguments in detail, more like handwave them away.

  17. David Marjanović says

    gamma-aminobutiric acid

    butyric, after the original of butter

    only grew in a specific ecological niche between the island of Platea and the Gulf of Syrtis

    That’s not what “ecological niche” means – it’s what a species does, not where it physically is.

  18. Thanks to the LH commenters for following up on this! I am going to write the Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanical Garden and find out if the plot of F. drudeana there can be visited by the general public or if I can arrange to see and—I hope—smell the plants during my next stay in Istanbul.

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