Silphium: A plant Contraceptive

I’ve been working on a book about plants used for contraceptives. In the research journey I learned about Silphium, an extinct plant that was a wildly poplar contraceptive.

The story goes like this: during the time Alexandra the Great, he was born 356BC, on his yearly visit to the Delphi Oracle a Greek king was advised to send his people across the Mediterranean sea and set up a settlement on the arid land that rises from the glistening waters of the inland sea. The Oracle told the King that city state established in this place would become the wealthiest and most powerful in all the empire. The King was not keen on the unpredictable journey across the sea and decided to stay home. Then draught destroyed crops. Trees died. People were restless and hungry. Again the King supplicated the Oracle and again she prophesied a rich and powerful city state across the Mediterranean. The King randomly picked citizens to cross the sea and establish a new city state.

After crossing the Mediterranean the Greeks discovered dry, dusty hills where the wind had a hot, dusty breath and their crops shrivelled before they had a chance to set down roots. The previous tribal ruler of area suggested the Greeks move a little bit in land where they would discovered a fertile valley where plenty of rain fell to nourish healthy crops. The Greeks moved in land and found a lush valley. The Oracle was right, they became very wealthy and powerful in this place. Their wealth and power did not come from the crops they grew there, but a plant that they found covering those hill sides, silphion. Silphion, a suspected member of the Apiaceae family, produced an oozing, odourous resin. When a women, took once a month, a chickpea size resins ball of silphion with a cup of hot water and she would not conceive. And if by chance she had conceived, her womb would be purged according to Pliny the Elder.

Silphion is a tall hollow stemmed plant with  thick black roots and leaves like celery. Its flowers were typical of a large apical umbels like angelica or Queen Anne’s lace. Theophrastus, the Greek father of botany, likened silphion to fennel. He described it as a giant fennel plant. Today, on the hill side where silphion was once plentiful two giant fennels grow. One is called giant fennel and the other is Tangier fennel. Like many other plant in the Apiaceae family, such angelica and cow parsnip, silphion had heart shaped seeds. The medicine people of the time, sited silphion’s  heart shaped seeds as a sign of its effectiveness as an contraceptive or in other words, sex without responsibility.

Silphion, to the Greeks was more than a contraceptive. It was a preferred cough remedy and they also used it relive growths on the anus. I have no idea what these growths were, but apparently silphion was a sure cure. Silphion’s ordorous resin was also a choice seasoning called laser in local cuisine.

The Greeks, understanding the value of the plant, tried culverting it in different location of their empire. It turned out to be impossible to grow, unless it planted itself. The only place silphion was willing to grow was in the Cyrene valley the Greeks had colonized. To preserve the plant the Greeks enforced strict laws about how it was harvested. As excitement of silphion’s contraceptive powers spread the demand for the plant increased. The Cyrene Greeks managed the plant well, understanding scarcity drove up prices. They quickly were became very rich and powerful. As a tribute to the plant, they placed its image on their coins. One coin depicted the use of the plant. On the face of the coin sat a women with silphion at her feet and her hand over her uterus.

Then along came the conquering Romans. When they occupied Cyrene valley, they renamed silphion silphium and ignored the foraging laws the Greeks had laid down. The Romans harvested the plant without foresight. Six hundred and eighty kilograms of silphium resin was shipped to Rome where Julius Caesar greedily secreted it away in his cache of most value treasures. After a 100 years of Roman occupation silphium was extinct. Pliny the Elder wrote in that the last stalk found of “One of the Most Precious Gifts of Nature to Man” was plucked and given to the Emperor Nero. Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD.

As there were fewer and fewer silphium plants to be found in the lush Cyrene valley, it appeared in the herb and spice markets with more and more adulterants. Everything from juniper berries, mustard, pepper and rubber was mixed with resin to make the rare medicine go a little bit further. The most commonly used adulterant was asafoetida, a strong smelling herb from Central Asia and India. Today, asofoestida gives Wercestershire sauce it unique odour.

After silphium disappeared forever, Benedictian monks in France in the early part of 800c spent years transcribing the works of Ancient Greek physicians like Dioscoride and Soranus. When they came to silphium, they substituted asofoestida in its place.

Interesting asofoestide in 1963 was found to be a very effective contraceptive in humans.

Today’s research shows silphium’s cousin Fennel has contraceptive properties. It contains a volatile oil called ferujol which is also found in Queen Anne’s Lace. It is suggested that it ferujol impedes implantation of the ovum.