Ancient heart

The heart symbol may have originated with an ancient Roman form of birth control, a plant that is probably now extinct.

Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC-BY 2.5]
Not too long ago I mentioned laser wort in my post on Roman cookbooks. There’s one thing that’s a bit confusing about its appearance in Apicius: the plant supposedly went extinct more than a century before that cookbook was compiled.

Laser wort, also known as silphium, was a botanical wonder of the ancient Roman world. Growing on the shores of the Mediterranean around modern Libya (then known as Pentapolis or Cyrenaica), silphium was used as a cure for warts, coughs, any many other things. But its popularity was tied to its use as a method of birth control – and also to induce abortion. Given the Greco-Roman propensity for mystery cult orgia, it was probably very popular. (That’s where we get the word “orgy” from, by the way.)

Silphium was so popular that a good portion of the Cyrene economy was dedicated to growing, harvesting, and exporting it. So much so, it became the symbol of the area and was imprinted on their coins.

It is thought that the plant was eventually over-harvested and driven to extinction. Pliny the Elder (I’ve been writing about him a lot recently) reported that the last plant was given to Emperor Nero. Or there could have been other contributing factors, like over-grazing or climate change. Or silphium may not be extinct at all… because we don’t know exactly which plant it was, we cannot be sure that it is gone for good. The silphium mentioned in Apicius probably referred to a lesser plant used in its place once proper silphium became extinct: asafoetida, a relative of fennel, carrot, and celery.

Anyway, why did I choose this post for Valentine’s Day? Silphium’s fruit – or possibly its seed – were distinctly heart-shaped, and it is thought that the modern heart symbol actually came from this extinct plant with a romantic reputation.

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