from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun An extinct North African plant, often classified in the genus Ferula, that produced a resin that was a popular seasoning in ancient Greece and Rome. It became extinct in antiquity, probably from overharvesting and overgrazing.
  • noun A plant of the genus Silphium, such as the compass plant.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun An umbelliferous plant the juice of which was used by the ancient Greeks as a food and medicine: called in Latin laserpitium. (See laser, laserpitium.) It has been variously identified, as with Thapsia Garganica.
  • noun [NL. (Linnæus, 1752).] A genus of composite plants, of the tribe Helianthoideæ and subtribe Melampodieæ.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun a plant, thought to be extinct, used in ancient Greece and Rome in cooking and as a contraceptive.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun tall North American perennial herbs


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Latin, from Greek silphion, perhaps of North African origin.]


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  • "Beyond it lay overgrown beds and plants John had never set eyes on before: tall resinous fronds, prickly shrubs, long grey-green leaves hot to the tongue. Nestling among them he found the root whose scent drifted among the trees like a ghost, sweet and tarry. He knelt and pressed it to his nose.

    ' That was called silphium.' His mother stood behind him. 'It grew in Saturnus's first garden.'"

    John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, p 88

    November 10, 2012

  • "The comedies of Plautus (ca. 254-184 BC) and Terence (ca. 195-ca. 159 BC) are sprinkled through with references to seasonings (condimenta), one of their stock characters the boastful cook who can reel off all the exotic flavors at his disposal: Cilician saffron, Egyptian coriander, Ethiopian cumin, and, most tempting of all, silphium of Cyrene. This North African aromatic, ultimately harvested to extinction, turned Roman gourmets weak at the knees.*

    *By the middle of the first century AD, Nero could acquire just one specimen, apparently the last. Thus to his many crimes must be added an extinction."
    --Jack Turner, _Spice: The History of a Temptation_ (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 74

    November 30, 2016

  • "The Romans lacked certain spices that became popular in the medieval centuries, especially cloves and nutmeg, which at the time were cultivated only in the Molucca Islands in what is now Indonesia, but they had a fondness for a North African spice called silphium (which they managed to render extinct), and for asafetida and fish paste (now considered completely alien to European tastes)."

    Paul Freedman, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2008), 26.

    Another use on nutmeg but good luck finding it amid the storm of quotations I put there. 

    November 27, 2017