Silphium was a plant that was used as a medicine in the Ancient Roman empire. It was the essential item of trade from the ancient North African city of Cyrene, and was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins bore a picture of the plant. The valuable product was the plant's resin (laser or lasarpicium).
(PICTURE ON THE RIGHT)-Ancient silver coin from Cyrene that shows a stalk of Silphium]
Silphium was an important species in prehistory, as evidenced by the Egyptians and Knossos Minoans developing a specific glyph to represent the silphium plant. It was used widely by most ancient Mediterranean cultures; the Romans considered it "worth its weight in denarii" (silver coins). Legend said that it was a gift from the god Apollo.
The exact identity of silphium is unclear. It is commonly believed to be a now-extinct plant of the genus Ferula, perhaps a variety of "giant fennel". The still-extant plant Ferula tingitana has been suggested as another possibility. 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.
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