Happy Valentines Day....Wait! Where in the world did that heart come from?


Well, as you might have guessed, this being the Rye Nature Center, it has something to do with plants. A plant called silphium. All the way back to the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the North African city of Cyrene traded it so heavily with its neighboring states, and it was economically so important to them, that they even impressed the outline of its seed on their coinage. The plant was used for the treatment of coughs and sore throats and loads of other things, but specifically it was used as a contraceptive or abortifacient. As a result of Photo: commons.wikimedia.orgits medicinal uses, there are references to silphium in connection with sexuality and love in writings contemporary to that time, in stories and in poems. We know that the demand for the plant was so heavy that by the 3rd or 2nd century BCE it became extinct.


But getting back to that heart-shape, you have to look at those three-thousand-year-old coins (as usual, just Google it). The design on their face is definitely heart-shaped, and because it is often accompanied by the picture of the plant itself, is assumed to be the seed or seed pod of the plant. Now, think of the silphium's heart-shaped seed, think of the love poetry, think of the medicinal uses, and you can see the connection to love.

Silphium perfoliatum . Photo: finegardening.com

Silphium perfoliatum. Photo: finegardening.com

Silphium still grows today although it is a different species of silphium. The common name of the plant growing these days is the cup plant, in Latin Silphium perfoliatum. It is a member of the aster family, but it grows as tall as 8 feet high with square stems and leaves that attach directly to the plant (the Latin word perfoliatum means "through the leaves") so they form a cup shape where attached. And that's how it got its common name.

And so, we repeat, Happy Valentine's Day.

Michael Penziner, FRNC Docent