Amanita Muscaria Resin

Ammoniacum, asafoetida, and galbanum, produced by Dorema and Ferula (Apiaceae, or Umbelliferae), have a long tradition of use. These plants are very common on the plains and steppes of Iran and Afghanistan. Shortly after the rainy season starts, the plants send up thick stems from perennial root-stocks. When fully grown they can be 2-3 m high and so abundant that they form a kind of open forest (Plate 46; Hill 1952). Resin is collected from stems and roots. McNair (1930) classified resins from Dorema and Ferula as tannol resins, that is, predominantly esters of aromatic phenols that behave in some ways like tannins (polyphenols). Such behavior may have ecological implications because tannins can complex with proteins in the digestive system of some herbivores (Chapter 5). The resins also contain small amounts of ter-penes, particularly sesquiterpenes, as well as true gums.


Dorema ammoniacum, one species in a small genus, produces a resin called gum ammoniacum. The name ammoniacum was reputedly derived from that of the temple of Jupiter Ammon in Libya, where it was commonly collected. The plant is a very large perennial herb, native to central Asia, Iran, and to the north. Resin exudes from punctures in the stem, which can occur from insect attack, and the resin that is usually collected comes from these natural exudations. The medicinal value of the resin was mentioned by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. It is still used in Indian and Western medicine and is listed in the British Pharmacopoeia as an antispasmodic and expectorant (Cheval-lier 1996). It is occasionally used for chronic bronchitis and persistent coughs.

Ammoniacum is medicinally similar to asafoetida and galbanum from Ferula. In fact, African or Moroccan ammoniacum is thought to be derived from species of Ferula (Howes 1950). The ammoniacum referred to by Dios-corides, Pliny the Elder, and later Greek and Latin writers on medicine probably came from Ferula rather than Dorema.

Asafoetida and Galbanum

Gum resins from species of the large genus Ferula, commonly known as giant fennel, have been used since ancient times for medicine, contraception, cooking, perfumery, and incense. About 17 species produce resins of commercial importance, with some used primarily for flavoring and others primarily as medicinals (Raghavan et al. 1974). Ferula assa-foetida is one of the most important species from which the resin called asafoetida is obtained. A perennial plant that grows to 2 m high, it is native to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. When plants are 4 years old, just prior to the flowering stage, the stems are cut off and a series of slices made through the roots. The resin then wells up from canals in the cortex of the roots and is collected when it hardens as tears or masses of varying color (Chevallier 1996). It is one of the rare plants in which resin is tapped from roots. The resin is composed of ferulic acid, umbelliferone, asaresinotannols, sesquiterpene farnesiferols, and couma-rins (including foetidin), several disulfides, monoterpenes (a- and (3-pinene), a trace of vanillin, and gums composed of galactose-arabinose, rhamnose, and glucuronic acid (Leung and Foster 1996).

The medicinal use of asafoetida can be traced to the seventh century B.C. Hindu medical treatise Charaka Samhita, in which it is proclaimed as the best treatment for getting rid of gas and bloating (Chevallier 1996). In India and the Middle East, it has continued to be used for digestive problems. Ferula jaescbkeana, a source of asafoetida, has been shown to have contraceptive properties in humans (Farnsworth et al. 1975). Asafoetida resin is also currently used for bronchitis and whooping cough in tablet form as well as for lowering blood pressure and thinning blood. Duke (1985) has presented a long list of medicinal uses covering a wide range of ailments. India is a large importer of asafoetida but also reexports some of the resin to various Middle Eastern countries. Shivashankar et al. (1972) reviewed the chemical composition of different varieties of asafoetida and the standards in using them for Indian food packers.

Although resin from Ferula assa-foetida is most commonly called asafoetida, it is also referred to as devil’s dung; the disagreeable odor results from the presence of disulfides, particularly propenyldisulfide. Despite the implications of the name, the resin was the most popular spice in ancient Rome (Chevallier 1996). The aroma is as persistent as garlic, and the taste is even stronger. It is still used as a flavoring, notably in Worcestershire sauce. In Iran, it is rubbed on plates warmed for serving meat. When used as a flavoring, it is generally very dilute and certain objectionable compounds have been removed, or the resin has been blended with diluents. It is also commonly used as a fixative or fragrance component in perfumery. On the other hand, it is used in veterinary practice to repel cats and dogs in situations where they are unwanted (Morton 1977, Duke 1985). Resins called asafoetida are also obtained from F. foetida (eastern Iran) and F. narthex (Afghanistan) and used as a condiment (called food of the gods in Iran) and more widely as a medicine (Mabberley 1997). Samini and Unger (1979) discussed the provenance and quality of asafoetida-producing Ferula species in Afghanistan.

Ferula gummosa (syns. F. galbaniflua, F. rubricaulis), a perennial plant native to central Asia, is like F. assa-foetida in that it exudes a gum resin from the lower part of the stem and root when the stem is cut a few centimeters above the ground; it is collected after it hardens into separate tears or brownish yellow-green masses. The resin is commonly called galbanum and has long been used as medicine, incense, and food flavoring. It is mentioned in the Bible: “Moses, take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; …” (Exod. 30.34). Today, it is used in perfumes and soaps for its fragrance and it is employed in the manufacture of varnish. In food, it is found in nonalcoholic beverages, baked goods, candies, condiments, gelatins, and puddings (Duke 1983). Medicinally, galbanum is a digestive stimulant, anti-spasmodic, and reduces flatulence, cramps, and colic. It is also used as an expectorant and in salves for soothing chilblain and healing wounds (Chevallier 1996). Extracts of galbanum apparently have preservative and antimicrobial properties. Its spermaticidal properties may be one reason why galbanum has been used as a contraceptive.

Resin from sumbul, the central Asian Ferula sumbul, has been used as a nerve tonic. Sagapenum is a resin that was once collected, probably from Ferula; Howes (1950) suggested F. persica and F. szowitziana. Its use is similar to asafoetida and galbanum.

A resin called opopanax is derived from Opopanax chironium in ways similar to asafoetida. The resin was formerly used medicinally but is used presently for scent making (Mabberley 1997). The term opopanax is also apparently used for resin from species of Commiphora (Burseraceae), particularly C. katafand C. erythraea (Guenther 1950, Vol. 4), which is called bisa-bol myrrh or sweet myrrh (Chapter 8).


In the seventh century B.C., Greek colonists from Thera (now Thira) founded the coastal city of Gyrene in what is now Libya. According to Theophrastus, the colonists soon discovered a plant that made them famous and some of them very wealthy. They called it silphion, later latinized to silphium. Silphium was probably an undescribed species of Ferula and should not be confused with the genus Silphium (Asteraceae). Extant species that have been compared against coin depictions suggest that if silphium was not F. tingitana, then it was a closely related species (Gemmill 1966, Penn 1994). Silphium was also called laser and laserpitium from the names of resin from other species of Ferula (Koerper and Kolls 1999). Moreover, the term silphium was apparently used to refer either to the plant or its resin.

Silphium only grew on the dry mountainsides of Cyrenaica, facing the Mediterranean in a band about 200 km long and 55 km wide. Attempts to cultivate it in Syria and Greece were unsuccessful, leaving the city of Gyrene as the sole exporter of the plant and its resins. Silphium became the city’s distinctive symbol, with the plant featured on two Cyrenian coins, one showing just the plant and the other showing a seated woman touching the plant with one hand and the other pointing to her genitals (Penn 1994). In Greek art, the god Dionysus, typically representative of love, sensuality, wine, and drama, is often shown holding a silphium plant in his hand.

Koerper and Kolls (1999) listed the myriad medicinal uses for silphium from classical sources. Since it was considered the most therapeutic of all plants in the ancient pharmacopoeia, it was highly prized. Koerper and Kolls, however, raised a controversy as to whether the most important use of sil phium was as a contraceptive or aphrodisiac. The generally held view that silphium was used as a contraceptive is supported by the writings of Theophras-tus (about 300 B.C.) and Pliny the Elder (about A.D. 77), and more recently by Riddle (1985), Riddle and Estes (1992), and Riddle et al. (1994). Studies of the effects of the resin from three extant Ferula species-F. assa-foetida, F. jaeschkeana (Plate 46), and F. orientalis-have also demonstrated antifertil-ity properties in rats (Prakash et al. 1986, M. Singh et al. 1988). Furthermore, F. assa-foetida resin has been reported to act as a contraceptive and abortifa-cient in human tests (Farnsworth et al. 1975). Nonetheless, Koerper and Kolls thought that the imagery and stylized representations on Cyrenian coinage reflects an “imitative principle in early medical practice.” Interestingly, Riddle et al. (1994) imply that the numismatic motifs support the use of silphium as a contraceptive whereas Koerper and Kolls employ the same motifs to further their ideas regarding aphrodisiac usage. Other circumstantial evidence for the aphrodisiac view is drawn from the writings of Avicenna, who attributed aphrodisiac qualities to a recognized substitute for Cyrenaic silphium, and to the poetry of Catullus, linking silphium to carnal pleasures. Obviously, the question has not been resolved, but whatever the use of silphium, it was so great that the plant that produced the resin was exterminated.

Silphium resin seems to have become a medium of international exchange similar to bullion, judging from its storage in Rome. It made Gyrene the richest city on the African continent until the development of Alexandria, but its downfall was linked to the scarcity of the plant by the first century A.D. Pliny reported that a little later, in Nero’s time, “only a single stalk had been found there [in Cyrenaica] within our memory.” This careless treatment, including overexploitation of the plant and probably the land as well, could only have occurred if the regulations described earlier by Theophrastus had been abandoned. At one time, the government had prescribed both the amount and manner in which the resin could be extracted, measures that served to maintain the semicultivated plant. The collapse of an economy based so much on this plant provides a lesson in how short-term consumer gain can preclude long-term benefits. Export of silphium probably ceased after the beginning of the third century, and by the fifth century the plant was extinct or virtually so (Gemmill 1966). The conquests of Alexander the Great in the East resulted in trade of less-expensive and inferior asafoetida resin into the Greek market.

Excerpted from “Plant Resins” by Jean H. Langenheim. Book Available HERE..