Crocodile Seeds & Silphium

In the pairing of Kyriaki Goni and Lucy Davis there is a shared interest in agro-speculation through histories of seeds, migrations and exploitation. Kyriaki charts the first extinction of an uncultivable plant through over consumption in Europe, and Lucy stories seeds found in the belly of a  taxidermy crocodile, dead for 140 years, currently displayed in the Lee Kong Chian Singapore Natural History Museum.

Lucy Davis, Crocodile Seeds. Photo courtesy of the artist.
A plate depicting Cyrenians weighing and loading up silphium shipments

Lucy Davis, Crocodile Seeds

My offering is part of a long process of tracing seeds that were found in the belly of a crocodile, more context can be found here and here.

One story starts with a 4.7m crocodile, killed Singapore in 1888 and offered to the colonial Raffles Museum where they were stuffed with straw. The origin of this straw is still unknown, but inside has been gleaned an ecology of potentially-living seeds, including wheat, rye, and unidentified plants and flowers. Pre-industrial varieties of cereals are of value as possibly more resistant to climate change. Organic farmer Magnus Selenius and his niece Embla Lindblad from Nyby Gård Espoo, Finland specialise in rehabilitating ancient cereals and have agreed to help try to cultivate this “crocodile meadow”. 

Another thread of the story concerns the historical figure of Pang Limah Ah Chong, a 19th C. Chinese, Taoist mystic, and tin mine Triad leader during the Perak Larut Wars in Malaya, turned anti colonial freedom fighter. The spirit of Ah Chong,  according to a 1948 Singapore Straits Times article found by Lee Kong China Natural History Museum Curator Kate Pocklington, is said to reside in this very same crocodile.

How might incongruous materials and beings, hosted by this colonial trophy, still on display in the museum, seed stories for our troubled times?

Kyriaki Goni, Silphium

Can a story of exhaustion, destruction and greed in the past inspire alternative? Silphium was an uncultivated plant that grew in Cyrene, North Africa (modern Shahhat, Libya) and became the cash crop of the region of Cyrenaica between c. 631 BCE and the 1st century CE when, according to Pliny the Elder, it had become extinct. Its disappearance is considered the first recorded species extinction in history. Modern scholars, believe its extinction was due to overharvesting and overgrazing.  

In his Enquiry into Plants Theophrastus born about 370 B.C in Lesbos, emphasizes that silphion avoids cultivated soil: It is typical for this plant, he writes, always to leave [land] which is brought into cultivation and tamed, for it plainly does not miss [human] attendance but is a wild being. 

In 2021, researchers from Istanbul University reported that a plant species believed to have been extinct for almost 2,000 years might have been found in Turkey, growing around the slopes of Mt. Hasan in central Anatolia. The species, Ferula drudeana, closely resembles a fabled plant once known as silphium.