The silfio , from the Greek Σίλφιον, or laserpicio in Latin , is a plant disappeared from the beginning of our era, similar to the asafétida , very valued in the antiquity in the Mediterranean area for its resinous exudate (laser) used for its properties like medicine and Gastronomic condiment. 1

Description of the plant

At present the plant is believed to have disappeared, although some modern species such as this plant or relatives very close to it have been proposed. From the descriptions, conserved images and similarities described, it is generally considered as a member of the genus Ferula , to which asafoetida belongs, which has been proposed as the possible identity of the laserpicio, since Strabo uses the term indistinctly with both plants. It is known that asafoetida was used as a substitute of inferior quality but it is not known if it was a substitute or a variety of the same plant of lesser quality or less careful elaboration.

According to Pliny the Elder , who did not get to know the laserpice, the plant was wild and impossible to cultivate, with strong and abundant roots and a similar stem to that of asafoetida and of similar thickness. The leaves, called maspetum were similar to parsley and the plant changed them every year. Other authors mentioned by Plinio describe the plant with roots of more than one elbow in length and showing a tuberosity on the surface of the earth, on which stood the stem called magidaris from which sprouted golden leaves that fell during the ascent of star can ( dog days ), when the south wind becoming dominant. According to these authors the plant was also reproduced from these fallen leaves, not only from the seeds.

The Latin name of the plant is laserpicium , from which the laser was extracted, which was the aromatic resin that exuded the plant. The laser was extracted from both the root and the stem, these juices receiving the names of rizias and caulias, respectively, being the last one of worse quality and with tendency to spoil. This fluid was poured into containers on a layer of bran and allowed to ripen by shaking from time to time to avoid rotting. It was known when it had matured by the change of color and the disappearance of the humidity.


The plant was quoted both for its medicinal and culinary properties. As food condiment it is mentioned in the recipes of Apicio in De re coquinaria .

As a medicine was attributed numerous qualities, Pliny mentions uses for sore throat, cough, fever, indigestion and warts, among others. Apparently one of its main uses was as contraceptive or abortive and Pliny specifically attributes it to provoke menstruation. 2 This is plausible since many plants in the family have estrogenic and abortive properties.

Pliny mentions that the inhabitants of Cyrenaica consumed the stalk of the plant, both roasted and cooked, which had purgative and purifying effects of the organism.


By the year 50 the laser had disappeared from Cyrene. Plinio narrates that a single plant was found in his time, which was sent to Nero as a gift:

… A single stem sent to Nero is all that has been found (in Cyrenaica) in the memory of our generation … since then no other laser has been imported than that of Persia, Media and Armenia, where it grows In abundance although much inferior to the one of Cirenaica and in addition is adulterated with rubber, sacopenio or ground bean …

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis History, book XIX cap. fifteen.

The causes of extinction are unknown but are thought to have been mainly due to overexploitation due to its high value and increased demand, coupled with climate changes in North Africa, which has become progressively more arid since antiquity Remote. The plant grew on a narrow strip of land on the coast flanked by the desert. In addition the plant was only collected in the wild, since Theophrastus stated that it was not possible to cultivate it. Another fact that could influence was the excessive grazing in areas where the plant grew, coupled with the fact that the meat of the cattle that consumed it acquired a pleasant flavor, according to Pliny.

Various botanical expeditions have taken place throughout history in order to locate the plant in North Africa, without success to date.

Historical testimonies

King Arcesilaus of Cyrene oversees the making of silphium. Tondo of a laconia crater (565-560 BC) found in Vulci , Etruria . ( National Library of Paris )

The silfio is documented from very ancient times and its importance for the towns that used it is attested by the fact that both Egyptian and Minoan writing had specific ideograms to denominate this plant. 3 Its exploitation was concentrated in the Cyrenaic province in the north-east of present-day Libya , and its commerce was so important to the city of Cyrene that the image of the plant is preserved in most coins minted in this city.

One of the first mentions is Herodotus , who mentions in Book IV of his story saying that between the island of Plataea to the mouth of Sirte . Later, about 310 BC, it is mentioned by Theophrastus in his History of Plants and later described by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History by the middle of the first century , when the plant had almost disappeared. In it it affirms that the plant was worth its weight in silver:

… the laserpice, which the Greeks call silfion, originally from Cyrenaica, whose juice is called laser, is excellent for medicinal use and is heavy in silver denarii …

Pliny the Elder, Naturalis History, book XIX cap. fifteen.

This leads one to think that perhaps the silo was indeed a variety of asafoetida, which continued to be exported from the regions mentioned by Pliny. The silphium of Parthia , in the south – east of the Caspian Sea , was considered the best quality after Cyrene. 2

Bishop Sinesius of Cyrene mentions it about the year 400, saying that the silfio of his city is a double blessing, although it is unknown if it refers to the disappeared plant.

The existence of the silfio is collected in herbariums and recipes of very long periods after its disappearance, as the one of Vinindarius in a Brevis pimentorum that in domo esse debeant , or “Summary of condiments that must have in a house”, of Carolingian epoch (S. VIII), although it could be due to a confusion with another species perhaps extracted from older writings.


Pliny recounts the legendary origin of the silian mentioning Greek authors. According to this legend the laserpicium was born for the first time in the vicinity of the Garden of the Hesperides and the Gulf of Sidra , after a black deluge like the fish . This happened seven years before the founding of Cyrene (618 BC).

According to other sources its origin is due to Aristeo (also discoverer of the honey), son of Apolo and Cyrene .

In heraldry the remains of the gold of Cyreneica 4 ), a stylized plant that was the emblem of the Italian units that fought in North Africa in World War II, are preserved in Italy .


  1. Back to top↑ Pliny, XXII, Ch. 49
  2. ↑ Jump to:a b Did the ancient Romans use a natural herb for birth control? , Straight Dope, October 13, 2006
  3. Back to top^ Hogan, C. Michael (2007). Knossos fieldnotes . Modern Antiquarian . Consulted the 13 of February of 2009 .
  4. Back to top↑ AC Moorhouse, “Two Adjectives in Catullus, 7.” The American Journal of Philology 84.4 (October 1963: 417f); Stephen Bertman, “Oral Imagery in Catullus 7,” The Classical Quarterly , New Series, 28 (1978), pp. 477-478
  • Herodotus . The Histories . II: 161, 181, III: 131, IV: 150-165, 200-205
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece 3.16.1-3
  • Pliny the Elder . Natural History . XIX: 15 and XXII: 100-106