The Demise of Silphium…and its Literary Heritage



What does it mean for the history of a place when a plant that marks time, memory or seasons, no longer exists? How can one read the literature of a region when descriptions of flowers no longer bloom?

In his landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, passes by a neighboring cemetery, established in the 1840s.  He notices the bloom of the Silphium, a ‘man high’ stalk with yellow blooms resembling a sunflower. It is perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of the United States.

Not only, he notes, has it bloomed a week late, but upon passing it 10 days later, he sees it has disappeared. Road crews removed the fencing around the cemetery and cut it down. He thinks, “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” [i] And though it will compete to live with the mowing machine for a few years, in time it will die and with it the “prairie epoch.”

This is an age old dilemma of land development: how to ‘progress’ for the present, yet still honor and preserve the past.

And how does the inevitable decline in species of plants affect the literal landscape writers draw from?

Some passages:

  • The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise.
  • This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

[i] Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Random House, 1966, pp. 49, 50. First published 1949 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


© 2017 Laurie J. Welch