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Did the Ancient Greeks Fuck This Plant Until It Went Extinct?

Silphium was edible and extremely tasty. It was also used for contraception and to treat a number of ailments. But was it too tasty and too good at preventing pregnancy to last?

In light of last week’s leaked Supreme Court draft — hinting at the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade — the abortion debate has ferociously been reignited on social media. There are a number of bad opinions going around, but one in particular caught the eye of the aptly named Twitter account @BadMedicalTakes. “Actually babies are the literal reason humans have sex,” it read. “Pleasure is a nice side effect, but sex without pregnancy is a phenomenon less than 100 years old. It’s arguably unnatural.”

Not only did this person out themselves as someone who never has sex, but they also opened themselves up to both mockery and diligent fact-checking. As part of the latter, one journalist responded in a now-viral tweet: “The ancient Romans literally fucked a natural contraceptive plant into extinction.”

If you’ve never heard of this and are reluctant to believe it: Me too! But, as it turns out, the ancient Romans did literally fuck a plant into extinction. Kinda, sorta. 

The plant in question is called silphium, and, in the B.C. years, it grew in the North African city of Cyrene — now the modern day town of Shahhat in Libya. Silphium was used for a number of reasons, but mostly — contrary to the above tweet — for eating purposes. As BBC Future reports: “Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed, or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils, and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender. Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap (known as ‘laser’) was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo.”

But it wasn’t just used as food — silphium was hailed as a medical wonder, treating everything from coughs and fevers to indigestion, aches and pains, and even warts. Of course, it was also used in the bedroom, where it was drunk as an aphrodisiac, or eaten as a contraceptive. According to All That’s Interesting: “A single dose of the resin from the plant would induce menstruation, effectively rendering the woman temporarily infertile. If the woman was already pregnant, the induced menstruation would lead to a miscarriage.”

While silphium was likely used for this reason, there’s apparently little evidence to suggest that it was effective as a method of birth control, even if those using it thought it was. In fact, rather than being over-harvested for its contraceptive properties, it’s more probable that the plant became extinct because it was just too tasty to resist — and, no matter how hard they tried, the ancient Greeks and Romans couldn’t figure out how to cultivate it. 

Experts believe this could be because silphium was a hybrid — a cross between two different species of giant fennel. As London’s Kew Gardens observed: “[This] might explain why the herb only grew in such a small area. The hybrid may have reproduced asexually, spreading its roots to grow new plants. So, when the ancient Greek farmers harvested the seeds and tried to grow them, they may have been completely sterile.”

Whether they favored it for its taste or contraceptive properties, the ancient Greeks loved silphium so much that they imprinted it onto their coins. It’s also claimed that the plant’s heart-shaped seeds — combined with its aphrodisiac properties — are the reason we associate the symbol with romance today.

Clearly, humans have loved non-reproductive sex (and abortion!) since the dawn of time, contrary to what the Supreme Court and random guys on the internet want you to believe. If only modern day birth control was so tasty — and as widely beloved by all.