When the last known stalk of a Silphium plant was brought to Rome, it created a small sensation. According to the historian Pliny, it was given to emperor Nero as a curiosity. No Silphium had been seen for quite some time. After that, the plant went into oblivion.
Although the exact identity of the plant is debated among botanists, it is very probable that it went extinct.
Silphium probably belonged to the order Apiales, a group of plants containing many aromatic vegetables, like, for example, carrots, parsley, fennel and celery, as well as spices and medical plants.
In antiquity, the Silphium plant, native to a small area in Cyrenaica, in what is today Libya, was widely used as a spice, a food preservative and a medicine. It seems to have been used as a vegetable, but mainly its dried sap or resin (known to the Romans as “laser”) was used. In Indian cooking today, a similar, probably closely related plant (Asafoetida) is used as a spice and for medical purposes, but ancient authors regarded this Indian and Persian variety as an inferior replacement for the real Silphium.
Silphium grew wild in a small area and it fetched a very high price. When the Roman empire grew large and rich, the plant was doomed. People collected and sold the plant until non of it remained.
Today, this pattern repeats itself many times. Elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, dried seahorses, manta gills, shark fins, leopard furs, precious woods and many other products of threatened species are collected in the wild, as delicacies, as medicines (often based on superstitious beliefs in their effects) and for luxury items,for customers in Europe, in America and in East Asia, especially China. Like in the case of the Roman empire, the presence of large markets of rich, ruthless or thoughtless buyers, combined with poor or equally ruthless people collecting or poaching the plants and animals, has driven many species to the brink of extinction and some (like the Vietnamese Rhinoceros that went extinct in 2011) over its edge.
Silphium was not the only species extinguished or reduced by the Roman empire. The circus “games” for example consumed a large number of predatory animals, like, for example, lions, which became extinct around the Mediterranean.
Since there are large markets of rich people again, it is probable that we will have to witness the Silphium-type extinction – the extinction of species due to non-sustainable over-harvesting for an often distant market of rich buyers – many times again over the next years and decades. This is not the only mechanism causing the current mass extinction, but an important part of it.
Let me close this article with a memorial-haiku for the Silphium plant, this time written in Latin:
Then was extinguished
By greediness Silphium
The taste forgotten
(The picture is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Silphium.jpg. To translate the Latin haiku to English, I had to use the passive voice. English words are just too short.)