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Good News: An ancient miracle plant may have been rediscovered

BY READERS DIGEST

28th Sep 2022 Good News

Good News: An ancient miracle plant may have been rediscovered

Valued for its miraculous properties and eaten into extinction by Emperor Nero, silphion was the first recorded species to go extinct. Now, thousands of years later, has it been rediscovered?

An ancient plant called silphion, valued for various medicinal properties, went extinct thousands of years ago—or did it?

An ancient history

The golden-flowered plant was first documented in Cyrenaica in North Africa, where it supposedly grew after a “black rain” fell. It was used to treat various ailments such as sore throat, fever and warts, as well as having been used as a perfume and an aphrodisiac

Silphion ancient plant rediscovered

Silphion, also known as silphium, was extremely valuable in ancient times © Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

The plant was so valued for its properties that Julius Caesar stockpiled more than half a tonne of it in his treasury alongside silver and gold. Unfortunately, Emperor Nero supposedly ate the last one, and people have been hunting for this lost plant ever since. Historians believe that silphion’s disappearance is the first recorded extinction of any species.

A new discovery

A professor at Istanbul University believes that he has re-discovered the plant in the foothills of an active volcano in Turkey, although it’s not possible at this time to be certain that it really is the same plant. More extensive testing is needed to compare ferula drudeana to the remains of the ancient silphion.

Professor Mahmut Miski first found the plant he believes to be silphion in spring of 1983. At the time, the plant was identified as a new species and named ferula drudeana. After extensive research, Miski found compelling similarities between ferula drudeana and silphion.

"The plant was so valued for its properties that Julius Caesar stockpiled more than half a tonne of it in his treasury"

As well as similarities in physical appearance, Miski noticed that when there was rain ferula drudeana would grow up to six feet in just over a month. Ancient botanical texts suggest that silphion grew after downpours of rain. Another similarity: silphion resisted cultivation and had to be collected from the wild. Likewise, ferula drudeana was hard to transplant. 

The new plant has been found in parts of Turkey that had historic Greek populations, and Miski speculates that Greek farmers or traders brought the plant with them from Cyrenaica. Now, millennia later, it may have been found again. 

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