Appendix The Extinction Of Silphium

Because not all of the species in the world are known, it is difficult to determine the exact rate of species extinction. Unfortunately, there are plants with medicinal properties that have gone extinct. The first case of a medicinal plant extinction documented in an herbal text is silphium [37].

Silphium was originally discovered in what is now Libya after a mysterious black rain fell around 600 b.c. This plant subsequently spread throughout the region [38] and became valuable because of the particular taste of meat from animals that fed on it. Silphium was also a highly effective medicine. The dried sap of the plant could be used on a variety of disorders from fevers and warts to hair loss. Because of the broad uses of the plant, and a reported inability to cultivate it [38], silphium became highly prized. Because the plant was difficult to find naturally, Julius Caesar held on to nearly a ton of the dried resin in the Roman treasury [39]. Eventually, the lack of supply drove the value of the plant resin so high that the Roman Empire declared a monopoly on silphium. Soon after, because of the scarcity of the plant and the Roman decree, silphium literally became worth its weight in gold. Ultimately, the combination of scarcity and high price led to the extinction of silphium.

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