A long-extinct plant

Basket of carrots, radishes and a lonely bulb of fennel at a market. Text on image reads: Searching, finding a mysterious plant

Today’s resource

I’m a big fan of the Search/Research blog, by Dan Russell for improving my search skills. (He works at Google, but this is a side project).

He posts challenges with a question (and people reply in the comments with thoughts) and then a week or so later, he posts the results, so you can see how he did something and learn a bit along the way.

He just tackled a favourite topic of mine, a long-extinct plant that, as he says was “something so valuable that it was depicted on ancient coins as an emblem of wealth.”

I knew immediately what he was talking about (this is a thing that happens to me a lot: I am a magpie of random bits of knowledge) which is one way to figure out an answer but I loved seeing how people sorted out searching for this.

Here’s his original challenge post, and here’s the answer with additional search tips.

Additional observations

He mentions that “Roman extinct plant” doesn’t pull up the list of People Also Ask for him, but it did for me when I tried it just now. Nice example of either how the filter bubble affects things, or the effect of people searching on this topic as a result of his posts. Hard to tell which!

Screenshot depicting results for a search "Roman extinct plant" as described in surrounding text.

Unreliable narrators:

I also really love Dan calling out that historical sources aren’t always reliable. Especially about medicine. Or science. Or, come to that, a number of other topics.

Pliny the Elder is a great example: he did a lot of writing about things that are useful because they survived when other historical medical and natural history writing didn’t. But he’s not the most reliable source for actual useful information.

If you want to know more about Pliny, the podcast Sawbones did an episode all about Pliny in 2016. He keeps coming up in their discussions of medical history, again, because a lot of his material survived when other people’s didn’t. They provide tons of reasons his medical advice is not something you should be following.

PS

The image for this post has one lonely fennel bulb, which is in the same family as Silphium. I thought that rather appropriate.

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