During a trip to the Mediterranean and Africa, I purchased two kilos of the aromatic resin known as Ammoniacum. They were beautiful, fragrant, fresh specimens and of rare quality.
They were still as the harvesters had gathered them, many resinous tears pressed into as big a ball as each could manage comfortably. Though steeply priced, they were recently collected and bright with personality, fragrance and colour. There is no doubt I would have spent my last few shekels on them if I had to.
Also known as Giant Tangiers Fennel, Ferula Tingitana is a perennial plant of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. Similar in structure to wild carrot, Angelica, Anise and Lovage, (but not Fennel!)
In late spring/early summer beetles puncture the outer membrane of its hollow stalks, triggering the plant’s defence system to exude a sticky, fragrant oleo gum resin that both repels insect attackers and acts as a bandage to the wound. Commercially, the plant is wounded by harvesters who then collect the droplets when they solidify.
Ammoniacum through the ages
Ammoniacum or Gum Ammoniacum is named for its long association with the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon in Siwa. Originally located in Libya, the temple was an important religious center for the Egyptians and the ancient Greeks,
Famous throughout antiquity, the Temple of Ammon was established by the ancient desert tribes of Libya. The remains of the temple are located 500 Kilometers north of the Kebira Crater, (The source of the mysterious Libyan Desert Glass), and 500 Kilometers West of the Temple of Amun in Karnak.
Once the site was absorbed by the Egyptians, it was renamed the temple of Amun Ra. Also named Amun, Amun-Re, Amon and Amen, this deity was considered King of the Gods and the God of the wind. In many ancient and modern traditions, the wind is associated with communication, ruled by the element of air, and represented on this plane by burnt offerings, the censer, and the smoke of incense.
When the ancient Greeks settled the coast of Libya around 600 BC, they named their domain Cyrene and operated the Temple and the Oracle under the auspices of their own gods, Jupiter-Ammon and Zeus-Ammon.
In Greek mythology, the Oracle of the temple of Jupiter Ammon is reputed to have instructed that Andromeda should be tied to a rock and devoured by a sea-serpent. Perseus dropped by to visit the Oracle prior to beheading Medusa, (Saving Andromeda on the way back), and Hercules visited the oracle of the temple before he fought.
Also known as Oshek or Veshek, Ammoniacum is burned till this day in the Moroccan Jewish tradition before the holy scrolls are removed from the Synagogue ark.
Horns of the Gods
Since ancient times Ammon, or Baal Hammon, was associated with ram’s horns. An association seen in Egyptian renditions of Amun Ra and through Greek and Roman times where stylized Ram’s horns are found on coins depicting the governors of Cyrene, and on the reverse a plant suspiciously reminiscent of Ammoniacum.
The temple kept its singular purpose and prominence as a divine oracle till the decline of the Roman empire. Even Alexander the Great took a detour and trekked 500 Kilometres through the deadly desert sea to consult the oracle at the Temple of Ammon. (After which he declared himself a God and had coins minted depicting himself with the Horns of Ammon).)
Ferula or Dorema?
There is another aromatic resin named Ammoniacum, but it is Dorema ammoniacum and found in Iran and further north. Due to its distance both culturally and physically from the temple of Ammon, my feeling is that Ferula Tingitana was originally associated with the oracle of Ammon and not its eastern cousin Dorema.
Adding to the confusion between these 2 plants is the common name of Oshek or Veshek in Southern Mediterranean and North African communities and its modern-day reference to the resin of both species which are sometimes found in Mediterranean markets and speciality shops.
Medicine, Perfume and Incense
Ammoniacum has a lovely “green” fragrance, similar to, but sweeter than that of its cousin Galbanum, F. galbaniflua, which is used in perfumery. Where Galbanum has a green and very dry scent, Ammoniacum has a fragrance that could be described as golden green, fresh, penetrating, moist and nourishing.
To my nose, Ammoniacum is closest in scent to Helba, crushed Fenugreek seed. In flavour, it tastes bitter and pungent though this might be due to its high essential oil content.
Ammoniacum has been used since antiquity to treat respiratory issues, excess phlegm, Asthma, chronic coughs and bronchitis and is said to soften hard tumours when applied as a poultice. It is considered a carminative, stimulating appetite and peristalsis which could be useful for the elderly. It may have a stimulating effect on the uterus and likely should not be taken during pregnancy. I found chewing on a small piece of the resin was pleasant and had the effect of stimulating the expectoration of phlegm, easing my breathing and soothing a stubborn cough.
The infused oil of Ammoniacum may be of help in a chest rub for respiratory issues and lends a beautiful crisp golden green fragrance to oil-based perfumes. An alcohol tincture brings out more of its bright notes and burned as incense, the fragrant smoke is true to the aroma of the fresh resin with no charring or unpleasant burnt scent.
Ammoniacum can be used in similar ways to its cousin, the fetid smelling Ferula Asafoetida known as “Devil’s dung”, Stinking gum and Hing. Cats find the fragrance of both resins repulsive and avoid them at any cost. Ammoniacum, unlike its cousin Ferula assafoetida, does not seem to reduce flatulence.
Silphium and Cyrene
There is a theory that this species of Ammoniacum may be the ancient, mysterious and sought-after Silphium which was highly esteemed for centuries, and found itself minted on many a coin. Silphium was said to grow only in the area of Cyrene, in Libya, a hop, skip and short camel ride away from the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon.
Silphium was used as a culinary spice, a popular medicine and as an incense material. (An offering to the oracles?) Silphium was so sought after in ancient Mediterranean cultures, it may have become extinct from over-harvesting. A cautionary tale.
Ammoniacum, according to the Silphium entry in Wikipedia-”This species has been considered to have abortive and menstruation-inducing properties. The species has been suggested as a possible identity for the controversial silphium, a plant used as a spice and for various medical purposes in classical antiquity in the Mediterranean region. Among the many uses of silphium was promoting menstruation, and possibly contraceptive or abortifacient properties, which has been suggested to link it to Ferula.Wikipedia.
For those who have an interest in the spiritual/esoteric aspects of this plant, I will mention that in my experience this resin can serve the same oracular functions today that it offered our ancestors. A piece the size of a lentil is all that is needed. From an Astrological point of view, I would associate it with Mercury.
You won’t find Ammoniacum in the shop. I couldn’t put a monetary value on it so I gave it away to those I thought would appreciate it the most.