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Ancient Birth Control Plant Was Harvested into Extinction

Historical Facts | June 28, 2018

Birth control didn’t start with The Pill in 1960. In fact, women have sought out ways to control their own fertility since the antiquity. Today’s generation of women may have missed out of the most effective birth control method ever known, silphium. Silphium was an ancient herb that grew only in one place on earth. So valued was it as a contraceptive that strict regulations were placed on its harvest and distribution. Guards encircled the silphium field, but cunning thieves still found ways in. Silphium was over-harvested into extinction by the 1st century BC. All we have left is textual evidence that the herb ever existed. Looking at these ancient texts, we can see a picture emerge of this wondrous ancient birth control herb.

The Land of Silphium

Silphium was found in only one place, growing wild just outside Cyrene, a city in North Africa in what is now Libya, in a valley the Greeks named Apollo’s Fountain. The field of silphium was about 125 miles long and only about 35 miles wide. The legends claim that silphium grew after a black rain fell. We begin to see references to silphium in ancient writings in the 7th century BCE. As the plant grew in importance, so did the city of Cyrene. Soon it was the wealthiest city in the region and a destination for travelers. The silphium boon lasted only 700 years.

A Morning-After Pill?

The sap of the silphium plant was described in the ancient texts as being unusually aromatic. Medical books of the day claim that the silphium sap was a wonder drug that could cure anything from leprosy and tooth decay to warts, coughs, and anal hemorrhoids. In these same books, there are multiple tips about using the sap from the silphium plant to make a pessary that was highly effective at ambiguously-worded things such as “to bring forth menstruation” or “to purge the uterus”. These comments were thinly-veiled references to contraception, or specifically abortifacients, meaning silphium was used for drug-induced abortions. Silphium allowed the ancients to have a little extramarital fun without the consequence of bastard babies.

The ancient Romans used a natural contraceptive called Silphium. It was so valuable that its image was printed on coins!

A Silphium by Any Other Name…

Most plants on Earth belong to a family of similar plants. Surely that is true of silphium, too. If so, we should be able to find the herbs long-lost cousins. The problem with this idea is that, today, botanists cannot agree on what kind of plant silphium was. Some put it in the same family as parsley and others belief it was a type of fennel. We have some images of the plant because it was minted on coins from Cyrene. Additionally, both the Minoan and Egyptian cultures had specific silphium glyphs in their writing system. There are also crude sketches in medical books. Descriptions of the plants, written at the time when it grew, stated that it had short but thick leaves, a bulky root system, and small yellow flowers.

Silphium is for Lovers

In addition to its contraceptive properties, silphium was highly-regarded as an aphrodisiac. So in both capacities, the herb was a friend to young lovers. The images of silphium in ancient texts and on old coins show that the plant’s leaves were shaped like hearts. Legends claim that young lovers began using the heart shape in correspondences with each other, thus starting the association between the heart shape and love and romance.

The capitals of the temple show an extremely rare representation of silphium.

The Depletion of Silphium

The Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder wrote in his notes that visitors and thieves were over-zealous in their efforts to get their hands on silphium. The people of Cyrene build a wall around the silphium field to keep out everyone by the official silphium harvesters but sneaky thieves broke in anyway. The town officials in Cyrene had other silphium problems, too. Farmers had discovered that the mutton from the sheep that grazed on silphium was so tender and delicious that people were willing to pay top dollar for it at market. The farmers would tear down a section of the wall and sent their sheep herd in to graze on the silphium. All this spelled doom for the delicate herb. Pliny the Elder wrote that the last known silphium plants was harvested in the 1st century BCE and given to the Roman Emperor Nero as a gift. Nero responded by eating the plant.

The ancient herb may be hiding in plain sight as a giant Tangier fennel (Wikimedia Commons/Yan Wong)

Silphium Defied Cultivation

For centuries, people tried to grow silphium in their own home gardens, but the plant defied cultivation. The seeds harvested from the silphium plants failed to grown, no matter where and how they were tended. Silphium seemed firmly rooted in Cyrene. Theophrastus, the ancient Greek who many consider to be the father of botany, wrote extensively about his failed attempts to grow silphium from seeds. Modern botanists now theorize that silphium was actually a hybridization of two other plants. In plant husbandry, the plant that is produced by hybridization may be favorable, but the hybrid plants cannot reproduce by seeds. This is similar to how the offspring of hybrid animals are sterile. In plants, hybrids spread by root stock. When a new plant grows from the root stock, it is essentially a clone of the parent plant, duplicating that plant’s genetic makeup. Since it cannot reproduce on its own, the genetic stock is preserved. Had the ancients known this, they may have been able to successfully propagate silphium from root stock, but the roots of the plant were as valuable as the leaves and flowers. When the entire plant was harvested, the spread of the herb ceased.

The loss of silphium struck a hard economic blow to the region and to its faithful users. It was a valuable lesson for the ancients to learn about the depletion of a natural resource.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.