10 Plants Lost to History

Could its birth-control-related properties have propelled this ancient fennel to such popularity that the plant wound up on coins? Kurt Baty/Public Domain/Wikipedia

Few plants are as mysterious to scholars as Silphium. Described as a giant fennel, this plant was native to the Cyrene area (now part of Libya) where it was apparently quite abundant. The historical record didn't have much to say about it, though, until a group of Greek colonists arrived in 630 B.C.E. and went absolutely bonkers over it. They got rich selling the plant all across the Mediterranean and developed such an affinity for it that they put it on their coins.

The question was: Why exactly was Silphium so popular? Historians have a number of theories, including that it was used as a garnish for food or as a medicine to treat common symptoms like fever and abdominal pain. But for many scholars, those don't seem like important enough uses to warrant such a craze. The real reason might have been a bit more taboo: Maybe it was used for birth control.

Whatever the case may be, we'll never know because there isn't any Silphium left to test. Sheep might be to blame for overgrazing the plants, or the Cyreneans may just have picked it all. Either way, the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder said someone found the last stalk during his lifetime and gave it to the Roman emperor Nero. If that's true, it places the extinction date somewhere around 50 C.E. [source: McCarthy].

Author's Note: 10 Plants Lost to History

When I wrote in the introduction that animals get all the attention when it comes to extinction, it wasn't just for the sake of a catchy hook. There is way less information in the popular media about extinct plants than there is about extinct animals. I guess plants just aren't as cute and cuddly, and you just can't anthropomorphize them (talk about them like they're human) as easily. That's too bad because we've already lost some truly amazing plants, and we're going to lose many more if we don't start giving them attention, too!

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Arens, Nan Crystal. "Calamites." Encyclopedia Britannica. Jan. 29, 2015. (April 29, 2016) http://www.britannica.com/plant/Calamites
  • Ash, Sidney and Geoffrey T. Creber. "The Late Triassic Araucarioxylon Arizonicum Trees of the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, USA." Palaeontology. Vol. 43, Iss. 1. Pages 15-28. 2000. (April 27, 2016) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1475-4983.00116/pdf
  • Assi, A. "Argocoffeopsis lemblinii." International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 1998. (April 28, 2016) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18290783/0
  • Bass, Steve et al. "Forests, Biodiversity and Lieliehoods: Linking Policy and Practice." Koziell, Izabella and Jacqueline Saunders. "Living Off Biodiversity." Koziell, Izabella and Jacqueline Saunders, Eds. International Institute for Environment and Development. 2001.
  • BBC. "Extinct Plant Species Discovered in Amber." Feb. 15, 2016. (April 25, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35582991
  • Cairns-Wicks, R. "Nesiota elliptica." International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 2004. (April 26, 2016) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/37598/0
  • CBC News. "Coffee Beans in Danger of Extinction." Nov. 10, 2012. (May 3, 2016) http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/coffee-beans-in-danger-of-extinction-1.1161456
  • Conover, Adele. "The Object at Hand." Smithsonian Magazine. June 1997. (April 27, 2016) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-object-at-hand-8-137955135/?all&no-ist
  • Conservatoire Botanique National Du Bassin Parisien. "Viola cryana Gillot, 1878." April 23, 2016. (April 27, 2016) http://cbnbp.mnhn.fr/cbnbp/especeAction.do?action=pres&cdNom=129545
  • Dasgupta, Shreya. "The 9 Rarest Plants in the World." BBC. Nov. 21, 2014. (April 25, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141121-the-rarest-plants-in-the-world
  • Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture. "Why Are Some Plants Rare?" 2016. (April 25, 2016) http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/Rare_Plants/whyare.shtml
  • Francis, Jane and Vanessa Thorn. "Fossils, Plant." "Encyclopedia of the Antarctic." Ed. Riffenburgh, Beau. Routledge. 2007.
  • Jowit, Juliette. "One in Five Plant Species Faces Extinction." The Guardian. Sept. 29, 2010. (April 25, 2016) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/sep/29/plant-species-face-extinction
  • Juillet, N. "Viola cryana." International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. 2013. (April 27, 2016) http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/165210/0
  • Kenrick, Paul and Paul Davis. "Fossil Plants." Smithsonian Books. 2004.
  • Knowlton, Frank H. "New Species of Fossil Wood (Araucarioxylon arizonicum) from Arizona and New Mexico." Proceedings of the United States National Museum. 1888. (April 27, 2016) http://si-pddr.si.edu/dspace/bitstream/10088/13045/1/USNMP-11_676_1888.pdf
  • McCarthy, Susan. "Don't Worry, Darling, I Have Giant Fennel." Salon. July 1, 1999. (April 29, 2016) http://www.salon.com/1999/07/01/fennel/
  • Merkle, Scott A. "Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. Dec. 2, 2015. (April 25, 2016) http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/franklin-tree-franklinia-alatamaha
  • National Park Service. "What's in a Name? The Araucarioxylon Problem." 2016. (April 27, 2016) https://www.nps.gov/pefo/whatname.htm
  • Poorter, L. et al., eds. "Biodiversity of West African Forests: An Ecological Atlas of Woody Plant Species." CABI. 2004.
  • Siddle, Julian and Vibeke Venema. "Saving Coffee from Extinction." BBC. May 24, 2015. (April 28, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32736366
  • Speer, B.R. "Introduction to the Glossopteridales." March 15, 1997. (April 26, 2016) http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/seedplants/pteridosperms/glossopterids.html
  • University of Waterloo. "Calamite Fossils." 2016. (April 29, 2016) https://uwaterloo.ca/earth-sciences-museum/resources/calamite-fossils


Fireweed: The Pink Pioneer

Fireweed: The Pink Pioneer

Fireweed is the first thing to sprout, helping reestablish areas decimated by fire and deforestation. HowStuffWorks looks at the hardy perennial.

More to Explore