by on September 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm in Economics, History, Medicine, Science | Permalink

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.

Image result for silphiumThat’s the opening to an excellent story about silphium, a herb widely-used and loved by the Romans but that hasn’t been seen for nearly two thousand years. Part of the problem was biological, the plant grew only in a tiny region of modern day Libya:

Its entire range consisted of a narrow strip of land about 125 miles (201km) by 35 miles (40km).

Try as they might, neither the Greeks or the Romans could work out how to farm it in captivity. Instead silphium was collected from the wild, and though there were strict rules about how much could be harvested, there was a thriving black market.

Even today there are plants, like huckleberry which resist all efforts to farm them. (Ala Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel). Part of the problem was also economic–a tragedy of the commons–as prices shot up and property rights weren’t strong enough to prevent over-farming.

And might silphium still be found somewhere in remote regions of Libya? Read the whole thing.

1 prior_test3 September 8, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Actually, though huckleberry is not currently a domesticated plant, it can be ‘farmed’ easily enough – ‘Native Americans cultivated wild huckleberry stands, encouraging their growth with controlled burns. When early European settlers tried to transplant the berries elsewhere, they failed miserably, for a very basic reason: they took the wrong part of the plant. Huckleberries spread via rhizomes, long, leggy strands that look like roots, but are really just underground stems. “They think they’re digging up a plant, but they’re just digging up a limb,” says Dell. “Replanting” one is like burying a stick—nothing happens

Enough failed attempts, and huckleberries developed a reputation for being unfarmable, says Dell.

All crops, of course, started out wild. It takes dedicated botanists and scores of growing seasons before plants are prolific and consistent enough to grow fruit that doubles as a product. Strawberries needed hundreds of years to transform from tiny meadow-lurking treasures to golf ball-sized row crops. Blueberries have only been under our thumb since 1916.

“Huckleberries were about to follow the same path, but the funding got cut,” explains Dell. One botanist, Dr. Danny Barney, spent decades working on a tame huckleberry, in a dedicated lab at the University of Idaho. He grew his plants from seeds, skipping the tricky rhizomes entirely. As he crossbred generation after generation, the berries clumped bigger and ripened better. They developed thicker skins, and more consistent flavor.

Barney was one or two generations away from a fully civilized huckleberry when the University of Idaho ran into budget trouble and closed his lab. He has since retired to Alaska, where he hopes to continue his experiments—but he can’t do it all on his own, and state support is likely not in the cards. Despite their on-the-ground support, to the Idaho government, “huckleberries are just small potatoes, so to speak,” says Dell.’

Seems like a moral somewhere in that story, though not one likely to be recognized by Prof. Tabarrok.

2 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 12:43 pm

See, you had a nice, informative, interesting post going there, then you f***ed it all up with your unnecessary, gratuitous, petty, revealing swipe at Tabarrok at the end. God help those who have to deal with you in real life. People overuse this one, but you really are a sad little man.

3 prior_test3 September 8, 2017 at 1:59 pm

There is nothing gratuitous about the fact that the GMU econ dept is filled with people who spend much time and effort convincing everyone possible that basically all government spending is just a waste of money. True, Prof. Cowen does seem to favor supporting military spending, but with only one notable exception, not a single member of that GMU faculty has ever turned down the opportunity to keep cashing their Commonwealth of Virginia taxpayer funded paychecks Though oddly enough, that single notable adherent of the free market seems to be another one of the people associated with GMU that simply cannot be mentioned here, if repeated past experience is to be trusted.

But why bother responding to someone who has justified their commenting by writing they come here to troll people, at no cost to themselves? Though one trusts that Prof. Cowen was able to hand over your 100 dollars to a deserving GMU student, a thought which certainly fills me with joy, though undoubtedly less joy than that of the student on the receiving end of your lost bet..

4 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Pipe down, puffin. You’re tremendously rude and supercilious to your gracious hosts here. You deserve every bit of abuse you get.

5 prior_test3 September 8, 2017 at 2:04 pm

So, you stiffed that student after losing your bet, right?

6 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 2:05 pm


7 prior_test3 September 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Respect – most people would not pay 100 dollars at the whim of a sad little man on the Internet, one who is tremendously rude and supercilious to his gracious hosts.

Good luck with your trolling in the future.

8 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 2:14 pm

**eyeroll emoji**

9 Thor September 8, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Prior, Alex and Tyler have different political and economic views than you do. And indeed than I do. Why don’t you just argue with them like an adult, instead of the constant bitchy sniping? They are libertarians. They are not beyond the pale. It’s a valid position to inhabit.

“It is not enough that my opponents are wrong, they must be stupid too” is not an impressive position to constantly hold.

10 Anonymous September 8, 2017 at 6:22 pm

Really prior, you should act more presidential.

Wait ..

11 Roger Sweeny September 9, 2017 at 1:15 pm

What anonymous said.

Or as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

12 freethinker September 9, 2017 at 2:41 am

prior_test3, what is the relevance of your comments to the topic of Alex’s post?

13 trolling is the discourse of our times September 8, 2017 at 4:47 pm

I liked it, actually. Taking the piss out of piss-bags is a great sport.

14 Butler T. Reynolds September 9, 2017 at 11:35 am

Like most people, he’s probably polite and considerate in person.

15 Veobaum September 10, 2017 at 12:30 am

Seriously, prior, please stop posting.

16 Cowboydroid September 10, 2017 at 3:31 pm


17 Ray Lopez September 8, 2017 at 1:28 pm

@prior_test3- ignore the food allergic from LA’s hockey center dude, you’re quite right. Googling this herb referenced by AlexT, it seems there’s a cheap substitute: “another plant, asafoetida, was used as a cheaper substitute for silphium, and had similar enough qualities that Romans, including the geographer Strabo, used the same word to describe both”. Which perhaps explains why nobody cares about silphium.

Bonus trivia: many molecules found in nature as poisons have medicinal uses. Snake venom comes to mind, and just the other day the Zika virus is being used to cure an aggressive brain cancer.

18 mkt42 September 8, 2017 at 4:33 pm

It’s a good guess, that silphium would not be a big deal these days because we already have asafoetida. The one flaw is that the Romans also had asafoetida and regarded it as inferior (though not vastly so). So maybe if we did find the long-lost silphium, we’d say hey this is like asafoetida but better, those Romans were really on to something.

I hadn’t realized that huckleberries cannot be farmed. They’re quite plentiful in the Pacific NW. The other surprising thing is that every huckleberry that I’ve ever seen has been dark blue, I’ve always thought of them as a variant of blueberries. But even the Pacific NW is home to red huckleberries according to wikipedia.

19 Roy LC September 9, 2017 at 6:31 am

They are the same species as blueberries, but in the Northwest they are a delightful reddish purple.

I know someone who does cultivate them on a pretty large scale, but he refuses to say he farms them since he has almost no control on how much and where exactly his harvest will come. Since he is a professor of agriculture I will take his word on it that they are not farmable.

20 Govco September 8, 2017 at 12:45 pm

“(Ala Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel)”.

Diamond wrote that Zebras can’t be domesticated but I’ve seen them do a lot of cool tricks at circuses. Can one of you smart people explain why my own eyeballs lie to me?

21 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Are your eyeballs in the Trump Administration?

(Hacky, but too easy for me to pass up)

22 Cringe Police September 8, 2017 at 1:11 pm

“your unnecessary, gratuitous, petty, revealing swipe at Tabarrok at the end. God help those who have to deal with you in real life. People overuse this one, but you really are a sad little man.”

23 Sam Haysom September 8, 2017 at 1:17 pm

TKO. +1000

24 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm

LOL you Trumpies are such babies. prior took a shot at Alex, and I called him out on it. I took a shot at Trump, who literally asks for it and enjoys it, and you guys cry like toddlers. Too funny.

25 Sam Haysom September 8, 2017 at 1:29 pm

LOL. You got knocked out lil guy.

26 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Nah, you guys just got clowned for your Trump love.

27 Dick the Butcher September 8, 2017 at 8:14 pm

When I read about this herb, Homer, The Odyssey, and the “The Land of the Lotus Eaters” came to (my alleged) mind.

That being said, Two catastrophic hurricanes and a totally unrelated MR post couldn’t ease the Trump Derangement Syndrome. I’m sorry Nancy. In November 2016, normal Americans decided to see how things would go with a president that does not actively hate them.

28 A clockwork orange September 8, 2017 at 11:01 pm

The maneaters. They ate men. I’m pretty sure. The way you know is the piss. It’s colored with rungs of red and green at the splits, the time you push but the time in the piss is carried and so you have to be sure, and the only way to be sure, is to look at it, closely, with one and then the other, and then with both at the same time, and you can make out the orangina and then it’s like a wave unfolding on big sur, and you’re thirsty, and MSK pissing is thirsty and that’s when you hold hands and kiss his cheek, softly though at first and then harshly with puckered lips, like a goodbye, so he asks for more, and wants more, and maybe pleads.

29 Thor September 8, 2017 at 2:46 pm


30 Art Deco September 8, 2017 at 4:50 pm

same time tonight as last week, sweet cheeks?

31 HL September 8, 2017 at 1:03 pm
32 Ray Lopez September 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Yawn. One sentence–a patronizing one by Diamond that Papua New Guineans are smarter than average–is made into a blog post. Boring.

33 Wonks Anonymous September 8, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Cochran’s review is about much more than “one sentence”. He goes into the issues of domestication discussed above. I do think Cochran is putting much more emphasis on it that Diamond did, perhaps because it seems to obviously wrong to Greg.

34 Steve Sailer September 9, 2017 at 6:46 am

Here’s my 20th anniversary review of Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

35 Borjigid September 8, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Domestication is not the same thing as either taming or training.

36 Roy LC September 9, 2017 at 6:32 am


37 Ray Lopez September 8, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Apparently zebras will bite you quite savagely, even when seemingly tame. Kind of like the Siegfried & Roy white tigers.

38 RW Force September 8, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Domestication generally means to do things horses and mules do– be ridden, pull carriages and bear loads. Here’s why they don’t:

39 JonFraz September 8, 2017 at 2:31 pm

There’s a difference between taming an individual animal and domesticating a species. Almost any animal (well, those with some intelligence) can be tamed, but domestication is fairly rare. There’s even an ongoing argument as to whether house cats are truly domesticated or merely tame opportunists taking advantage of an odd vulnerable spot in human nature.

40 it's a stupid debate September 8, 2017 at 4:52 pm

we breed them and take full control over their reproduction

41 CorvusB September 8, 2017 at 9:11 pm

Oh, we do? Do you realize that the number of dogs who have no “owner”, and who breed at their own discretion, outnumbers the “pet” variety whose reproduction is controlled, by perhaps hundreds to one? Humans have even less control over cat reproduction. Suggest you read Coppinger for a start.
Your argument might stand better for cattle and other livestock, I don’t know about them.

42 Steve Sailer September 9, 2017 at 6:52 am

People have gotten a lot of work out of elephants without quite domesticating them. The Wikipedia article on War Elephants, for example, is quite interesting reading:

43 zebra wrangler September 8, 2017 at 4:49 pm

taming and training are not even in the same category as domestication. you ever been to a zebra ranch, buddy?

44 CorvusB September 8, 2017 at 9:04 pm

Doing tricks in the circus and domestication are quite different things. Wildness is a genetic trait. Domestication is a contrasting genetic trait. A wild-born animal doing tame tricks does not a domestic critter make.

45 Lanigram September 9, 2017 at 1:25 am

Did they also ride the zebras?

Zebras do not have a social hierarchy like horses and they bite.

Otoh, Eddie Murphy said that when met his ex-wife she was butt neked on a zebra soooo, I dunno, go figure.

46 Thanatos Savehn September 8, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Or maybe silphium was to Roman herb enthusiasts as semper augustus was to Dutch _ _ _ _ _ enthusiasts.

47 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Dutch p***y enthusiasts? Dutch p***s enthusiasts? Dutch booby enthusiasts? Spell it out, man!

48 Jeff R September 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Dutch Oven Enthusiasts? Are there such people? Nevermind…I don’t want to know the answer to that question.

49 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 1:51 pm

I was gonna go there, but ‘oven’ only has 4 letters.

50 Roy LC September 9, 2017 at 6:38 am

May I introduce you to the great CeeDub, though enthusiast is an understatement

51 prior_test3 September 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm

No sense in trusting the wisdom of the sort of crowds attracted to this comment section, is there?

52 msgkings September 8, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Self-indicting LOL. We’re all here together.

53 Jeff R September 8, 2017 at 2:07 pm

prior comments here more than anybody.

54 Thor September 8, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Tulip obviously. Tulips (in the lily family i seem to recall) were cultivated centuries ago, and were fairly easily transplanted from Persia and Turkey to Europe. They were never scarce (although they were in Europe, viz. Holland, when the 17th century tulip disease hit).

55 Zach September 8, 2017 at 2:16 pm

The Romans also loved garum, a sauce made from rotten fish, so temper your expectations.

56 JonFraz September 8, 2017 at 2:33 pm

If ancient testimonials can be believed silphium was a natural contraceptive. I do think some skepticism is in order though given that ancient, medieval and early modern pharmacopias were filled with useless and even toxic natural meds.

57 Thor September 8, 2017 at 2:54 pm

In my limited understanding, garum was a kind of fish sauce like one sees added to dishes in Asia today. And it was added to many Roman dishes, perhaps akin to the way ketchup is added to dishes here in America, amongst a younger (very young!) demographic.

58 mkt42 September 8, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Precisely. When I first read about garum decades ago, I recoiled and figured good riddance that the Roman Empire fell. Who would want to season their food with fermented fish guts?

But now Americans do pretty much the same thing, whenever they go to a restaurant serving Vietnamese, Thai, etc. food.

Also, take a look at the ingredients of say Worcestershire sauce. One of the main reasons it provides umami is because it contains … anchovies.

One of the all time great articles in the LA Times cooking section was when Charles Perry tried to recreate an old Middle Eastern recipe for “murri”, a once-popular sauce or condiment, made from rotten barley cakes. He used variations of the ancient descriptions (nobody wrote down accurate recipes in those days) and after weeks of moldering, fermenting, and re-mixing he had a dark colored fluid that resembled soy sauce more than anything else.

Which was the aha! moment for him. Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans … and wheat.

So we now see the pattern: take some ordinary substance — fish, barley, wheat, soybeans — ferment it with the right mold or yeast or bacteria or whatever, extract the juices and get a sauce that adds umami or savor to your dishes.

Or use modern chemistry as the Japanese did and extract monosodium glutamate from seaweed.

59 Mark Thorson September 8, 2017 at 7:15 pm

THat is a great article. Gives me lots of ideas for possible new sauces. Probably should begin with a starter culture of white or black koji rather than throwing the dice with whatever comes from the air.

60 Steve Sailer September 9, 2017 at 6:47 am

Silphium is pretty interesting from a Malthusian standpoint.

61 JonFraz September 11, 2017 at 1:56 pm

That’s assuming it actually did what it was expected to do.

62 Walt G September 10, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Willy Ley, in ‘On The Earth And In The Sky,’ a collection of his articles from the old Galaxy magazine, suggests it should be spelled zilphium, to honor the probable original pronunciation.

Silphium also provided the secret sauce in one Doc Savage adventure, Fear Cay.

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