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.
That’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.