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Return of the panacea

Ancient ‘miracle plant,’ believed extinct, said rediscovered in Turkey

Turkish prof. says ferula drudeana, found growing on Mt. Hasan in Anatolia, is ancient silphion — a seasoning, aphrodisiac, medicine, and contraceptive — not seen for 2,000 years

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Ferula drudeana. (Wikimedia Creative Commons)
Ferula drudeana. (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

An ancient plant hailed as a panacea that was consumed by most ancient Mediterranean cultures and believed to be extinct may have been rediscovered in Turkey.

Referred to as silphion, the yellow-flowered plant was described in Greek, Roman and Egyptian texts thousands of years ago and was thought to have been eaten into extinction by Roman Emperor Nero some 2,000 years ago.

Described by National Geographic as a “miracle plant,” silphion — also known as silphium — was used in classical antiquity as a seasoning, perfume, aphrodisiac, medicine, and even as a contraceptive.

The plant mostly grew in the ancient city of Cyrene in what is now Libya in North Africa and quickly became the city’s most coveted item of trade, with Cyrenacian coins bearing the image of the valuable plant — the only known image of the ancient plant in existence.

Historians and botanists alike had searched for the plant for hundreds of years but all efforts failed and they were forced to accept the theory that the plant was eaten into extinction, with Nero himself reported to have taken the last mouthful.

But a researcher from Istanbul University believes he has rediscovered the ancient silphion plant on a mountain in Turkey — hundreds of miles from its natural habitat.

Professor Mahmut Miski, 68, who specializes in pharmacognosy, the study of medicines produced from natural sources, has been researching the plant for decades and believes the ferula drudeana plant that grows on Mount Hasan in Anatolia has enough similarities with the elusive silphion that make it a leading candidate for silphium.

“Welcome to ‘silphion land,'” Miski said in an interview with National Geographic while standing at the foothills of Mount Hasan. “To me, the smell is stimulating, as well as relaxing. You can see why everybody who encounters this plant becomes attached to it.”

While analyzing samples of ferula drudeana, which is in the same family as carrots fennel and parsley, Miski found it contained anticancer compounds, anti-inflammatory properties and other traits attributed to silphium.

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

Other similarities between silphium and ferula drudeana identified by Miski include a difficult cultivation process, which forced ancient farmers to harvest the plant from the wild. Attempts to grow silphium in Greece, for example, were unsuccessful.

This begs the question — how could the ancient plant make its way from North Africa to Turkey?

While difficult, Miski’s team found that ferula drudeana could be cultivated under controlled conditions. Subjecting the plant’s seeds to cold and moist conditions, they were able to grow the plant in a greenhouse.

Furthermore, ferula drudeana can be found in two locations in Turkey where ancient Greek communities are known to have settled, according to Miski, raising the possibility that they brought the plant with them.

And while still inconclusive, the scientific community tends to agree that ferula drudeana bears the most resemblance to what we know about the silphion plant.

“Morphologically, ferula drudeana seems to be the most likely candidate,” Shahina Ghazanfar, a research associate who specializes in the taxonomy of Middle Eastern plants at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, told National Geographic.

“The striated stems, fruits, and possibly the root all seem to point to the idea that this Ferula species could possibly be a remnant cultivated plant in Anatolia that was known as silphion,” she said.

“The opposite leaves, which aren’t found in the other species,” Ghazanfar noted, “are particularly convincing.”

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