Jun 26 2011
In my neighborhood there’s a patch of flowering plants five to eight feet tall with pretty white umbels and lacey leaves. The patch expanded this spring and is now surrounded by a carpet of tiny plants, just like the tall ones.
From a distance I thought this was a good thing. The spot is a waste place that used to be ugly.
But now the patch scares me. I’ve identified the plants. They aren’t carrots or Queen Anne’s lace. They have purple spots on their stems. I don’t want to touch them. They’re poison hemlock.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a biennial that’s extremely toxic to humans and livestock. If eaten it kills by blocking communication between the nerves and muscles. Death starts by paralysis and ends by shutting down the lungs. Poison hemlock’s most famous victim was Socrates who was put to death in Greece in 399BC when the plant was Ancient Greece’s capital punishment tool.
Poison hemlock came here from Europe and is now considered invasive in Pennsylvania and 11 other states. At some point it was used as a sedative — perhaps that’s how it came here — but the difference between a therapeutic dose and a fatal one is so slight that it’s Russian Roulette to try it.
Fortunately, my aversion to touching poison hemlock is probably excessive. According to the Medscape website, no one in the U.S. has died of hemlock poisoning during the last ten years (perhaps longer, but they only mention a decade). Even so, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with.
Read more here about poison hemlock and see pictures of its purple-spotted stems. The purple spots are a dead giveaway — pun intended!
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)