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Alex

Silphium -- the lost Roman herb

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Story in BBC Future

 

Quote

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

 

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I have been curious about this for a long time. If anyone reading this has serious interest, I have a plan (but no funding) to do a serious archaeological search for some seeds. My thinking is that someplace, somewhere, are some old seeds which have been overlooked at previously worked archaeological sites or hiding inside of artifacts sitting inside museums. The heart shape of the seed should make it a bit easier to identify. The plan would then be to do as much DNA research as possible and, if we can find enough, to try and grow some. I have seen encouraging stories of people growing plants from seeds found in 2,000+ year old sites.

 

There might also be a change to get some information from cooking vessels which were discovered with food in them. It's rare, but it does happen. (Mesa Verde, e.g.)

 

My reasoning for thinking that seeds may already be in museums or readily available in sites that have already been worked and cataloged goes back to a lecture I heard once by Stephen Jay Gould. He was invited to visit the Leakys at Olduvai sort of middling-late in his career, after publishing a few books. And, while he was there, the Leaky family was finding fossilized hominid bones all over the place. But couldn't find anything. At one point, someone standing near him bent down and pulled a fossil up from right next to Stephen's shoe. He was a bit sad about this for a while, but, he started finding snail fossils. Snails were his main area of study. During the brief time he was visiting, he  managed to discovered several previously unknown types of prehistoric snail. But, the Leakys had never noticed them, despite having been working for decades in the area. The lesson here? -People often see what they are trained to look for. Heinrich Schliemann could have ignored seeds strewn everywhere on the floors of Troy VI or something.

 

If anyone runs into grant info that would be useful, please let me know!

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28 minutes ago, Lisa Shock said:

The plan would then be to do as much DNA research as possible and, if we can find enough, to try and grow some. I have seen encouraging stories of people growing plants from seeds found in 2,000+ year old sites.

 

Being a scientist myself I truly admire your passion for this. While I agree that germination of perfectly preserved seeds has been successfully performed, it should be noted that no one has successfully cultivated that plant from its seeds in the timeframe it was used. The article devotes a large portion as to why this could be. Progress has been made in agriculture but it would be rather difficult to convince a potential grant sponsor that you would not only find seeds a a plant that has been extinct for two milleniae but also for the first time in human history be able to cultivate it (probably even outside of its very district native habitat).

That being said and not be too discouraging, I do believe that your planned endeavor would make a fine feature for one of the "popular" historic/natural science oriented periodicals, e.g. National Geographic. I know the do sponsor independent authors with projects of this scope. Maybe that would be a possible entry point for your expedition ? I for one would be very happy to read about your findings :)

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Thanks for the encouragement!

 

Growing up, my father worked in the commercial side of botany. I recall visiting some of the first cloned plants in 1972. I was being fairly broad in my statements above. I wouldn't just start watering some seeds, I'd try to do all sorts of examinations (well get labs to do it for me) for a long time first. I am hoping for some DNA clues. And, like they said in the article, this plant may have been a hybrid. -If this is so, we can attempt creating some the old fashioned way, or perhaps be able to clove it by inserting genetic material into some living plant cells where the nucleus has been removed or altered. I'm not really up to date on cutting-edge lab work.

 

I guess I should start researching various labs to see who out there has the capability (and desire) to run some sophisticated tests on ancient plant matter.

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9 hours ago, Lisa Shock said:

Thanks for the encouragement!

 

Growing up, my father worked in the commercial side of botany. I recall visiting some of the first cloned plants in 1972. I was being fairly broad in my statements above. I wouldn't just start watering some seeds, I'd try to do all sorts of examinations (well get labs to do it for me) for a long time first. I am hoping for some DNA clues. And, like they said in the article, this plant may have been a hybrid. -If this is so, we can attempt creating some the old fashioned way, or perhaps be able to clove it by inserting genetic material into some living plant cells where the nucleus has been removed or altered. I'm not really up to date on cutting-edge lab work.

 

I guess I should start researching various labs to see who out there has the capability (and desire) to run some sophisticated tests on ancient plant matter.

I remember reading about this ancient tree a couple of years ago and wondered if there are others tucked away in odd places.  A friend who had spent time mapping some of the Roman catacombs had mentioned that there are still vast areas around the city that have never been explored.

When she was active there in the late '80s, they found sealed funerary vessels at altars that contained all kinds of "gifts" for the dead, including plant materials, grains, etc.

These might hold viable seeds or other plant remnants.

 

And this reminds me of my fascination back then with learning what happened to Smallage, which at one time was grown in every kitchen garden and was more used than celery until the early 19th century.  In the '80s I could find no seed companies selling it.  I wrote a letter to one of the herb magazines and subsequently someone wrote an article about it.  Then one of the more obscure seed companies, specializing in herbs, began offering the seeds.  Apparently it caught on because now several seed companies are offering it.

It has a more pronounced flavor than either celery or lovage and has to be finely chopped or ground to use in cooked dishes or salads but at least it is available.  

And, oddly enough, it turns out that it is actually the plant grown commercially as "field celery" from which "celery seed" is harvested.  It was there all along, just not identified as the ancient herb.  The celery seed sold as an herb or spice, will not sprout, I think they are treated to retard germination. 

 


Edited by andiesenji (log)
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I remember being disappointed a while back when I was leafing through Dover's edition of Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, because this plant was used in so many recipes but I wouldn't be able to make them correctly!

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