Silphium is useful as well as beautiful. Native Americans collected the resin of silphium from cut stems and chewed it like gum to clean their teeth, freshen their breath (with its frankincense-like flavor) relieve pain and nausea, and treat colds.
More Information About Silphium
In 1753, the famous taxonomist Carl Linnaeus was looking for a new name for a native North American plant genus he was studying. He decided to name this group, "Silphium" after a legendary, ancient, and now extinct Greek plant of the same name. He did so because the new silphium and the legendary plant both produced a resinous goo from the stalk which was used by native cultures both as a culinary spice and as a medicine.
The modern genus Silphium consists of 13 species of American native plants in the Aster family (Asteraceae) and are closely related to other garden perennials such as berlandiera, engelmannia, vigethia, chrysogonum, and helianthus. The American silphium species are large flowering perennials that grow in moist areas across the eastern US from Texas north into Canada. Silphium is a valuable summer perennial because it is both tough and attractive. Silphium species are drought-tolerant, do well in poor clay soils, and tolerate heat and humidity. The members of this genus produce pretty, yellow, daisy-like flowers and large, attractive, lobed leaves during the dog days of summer when other plants have faded.
The young leaves were eaten raw in salads or cooked like spinach. Silphium flowers are produced over a long period during summer and are popular with bees for making honey.
Its namesake, the legendary Greek silphium plant, is totally unrelated to the modern silphium and was a carrot relative in the genus ferula that grew in a small region of North Africa. This plant, whose resin was sometimes called silphion, was valued so highly by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Minoans that they stamped their coins with depictions of silphium...so it was literally worth its weight in silver. The resin was an important aromatic culinary spice for sauces and sheep were encouraged to graze upon the plant because the resin made their meat amazingly tasty. The plants small native distribution and inability to be domesticated ultimately lead to its overharvesting and extinction. When you are ready to buy silphium (the native American kind) for your summer garden, check out our online list of silphium for sale.