The Case of the Disappearing Plants

She put the crime scene photo up on FB, for all to view, and lament. Her freshly planted blood orange had been (musical crescendo) stolen! From her front yard!  The suspect: the proverbial “Midnight Nursery”, on the prowl for boutique citrus trees even as their owners slept.

Plants have a long history of disappearance. And not just blood oranges from Southern California. In fact some  species have disappeared entirely, never to be recovered. Like silphium. In antiquity, silphium,  which looked rather like a giant fennel, was the major cash crop along much of the north African coastline.  The ancient kingdom of Cyrenaica, in fact, included an image of it on all their coins. Like this

Silphium was so popular — as seasoning, recipe ingredient, and medicinal cure for everything from indigestion to warts — that a high demand was placed on its services throughout the Roman Empire. It was hunted. It was overplanted. And before everyone knew it, silphium, everybody’s darling, had disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again; the  last  known stalk presented to Emperor Nero as a botanical curiosity, around 60AD.

Forensic botanists now theorize silphium to have been a member of the parsley family. Apicius, in his famous “Cookery and Dining in Ancient Rome” assumes it to have been synonymous with  laser, an oft-cited ingredient in his famous compendium of recipes, like one for “Leporem Madidum” (Braised Hare), in which a parboiled hare is roasted with laser, oil, pepper, satury, onion, rue, celery seed, wine, and a small amount of oil. Alas, we will never know  silphium’s unique flavor.

Not so my friend’s orange. Heartbroken, she returned to the tree’s place-of-purchase, OSH, where the original saleslady was so horrified by the theft she offered a replacement tree at the same discounted price as the first.  My friend plans, she says now, to anchor the tree to the ground with a chain and a railroad tie.

The Romans, as far as we know, didn’t have blood oranges. And we don’t have silphium. Have we one-upped them?  No one can say for certain, but I can tell you one thing: There is nothing, simply nothing, like the fragrance, the juiciness, and the texture of citrus fresh from a Southern California garden. I think Apicius would be green with envy.

One Response to The Case of the Disappearing Plants

  1. MP says:

    Nice, Joan!
    P.S. The replacement tree will be incognito. Maybe if I take the tag off, it’ll stay where I plant it (since the thieves weren’t interested in either of the kumquats or the Meyer lemon)!