In the first of this series -POISONOUS PLANTS -1, I reviewed the foxglove. This because the foxglove is a familiar plant that adorns gardens as well as the wider countryside. Now we come across a plant that is a member of the Apiaceae { formerly the Umbelliferae} family which is notorious for having many similar looking species many of which are beneficial to human health. These include fennel,parsnip,carrot,celery and caraway, the cultivated varieties are commonly grown or purchased for culinary purposes. However, many members of this family are very poisonous and many of them have led to fatalities. Thus correct identification is essential to the forager or any one gathering herbs for home made preparations.

Many Apiaceae members have copious amounts of acrid watery juice which have a narcotic effect on humans and animals alike. It was the juice from this plant that Socrates {Ancient Greek Scholar]  was made to drink, thus ensuring his death.

The Latin genus name of Conium derives from the Greek konas indicating to whirl about, because consumption of this plant leads to vertigo and eventual death.  The species name -maculatum means spotted and alludes to the reddish/purplish spots or streaks that adorn the stems.

Hemlock itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon hem,meaning border or shore + leac meaning a {leek} or plant.

Thus because of the plants reputation Hemlock is a familiar name to many people, but how many can place the name to the correct species of plant if thy came across it in the wider countryside?

Here with the aid of images and comprehensive description the plant will be described. 

Description of Hemlock.

The plant attained the height of 2-4 feet on average, however, growing conditions and locality may see this size doubled.

It is a native perennial and may be encountered in damp situations, in ditches, on roadsides, hedgerows and on waste land throughout most of Britain. The flowering season is July to September.

The root is long and tends to be forked of a pale yellowish colour. It is around three quarters of an inch in diameter. 

Hemlock. Courtesy of MPF CC BY-SA 3.0 License.



Stem and foliage

The erect rigid stem is stout below and much branched above. they are of a bright green colour which is made to look darker by the numerous spots or streaks of a reddish purple colour The stem is covered by a bluish white bloom which is easily rubbed off.

The foliage is also numerous , those of the first years growth and the lower ones in general are very large and may reach the length of two feet or more. They are long stalked and arranged in an alternate manner.  They are much divided {in the manner of a fern}. The upper leaves are much smaller and almost without stalks . In deed the stalk is so diminished that they appear to clasp the stem. These upper leaves are opposite to each other or in groups of three.  The segments are toothed. Closer observation will reveal that each tooth is tipped with a minute white point.

Flowers and seeds of Hemlock.

The flowers are arranged in umbels which are relatively small one and a half to two inches across. [ 3-4 cm]. However, what they lack in size they make up for in quantity  for they are numerous. The umbels are terminal and the the flower stalks are short. each of the umbels that form the flower head has 12-16 rays{ spokes like an umbrella} on each.

At the base of the main umbel there are 4-8 lance shaped deflexed bractlets. at the base of each secondary umbels there are 3-4 spreading bractlets. The flowers are small, the petals white the stamens a little longer than the petals, the anthers are white.

The fruits {capsules that hold the seed} are small, ridged, compressed laterally, and smooth. Both the flowers and fruit bear a superficial resemblance to caraway but the prominent crenate {wavy} ridges are an important identification feature of this species. The fruits are 2.5-3.5 mm long. a plant is capable of producing up to 38,000 seeds .

 Image courtesy of MPF CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Fruits of hemlock

Courtesy of Wiki-Commons.

The entire plant is poisonous.

There are several active ingredients  but the most critical of these is Coniine. When pasture grass id short and hemlock is producing new growth animals such as sheep and particularly cattle are vulnerable to its toxic affects. However, most are put off by the plants mousy smell when the plant is fresh.

Coniine disrupts the central nervous system. Ingestion in any quantity may cause respiratory, collapse and eventually death. Fatalities are caused by eventual paralyse of the respiratory muscles which result in death to to a lack of oxygen to the heart and brain. However, the poison does not affect the mind which is still alert until the last breath.

The components of hemlock

Medicinal uses.

Despite its very poisonous nature hemlock has been used in medicine. It was employed in medieval times as a sedative and spasmodic.

In homeopathy it is used to treat dizziness, swollen glands  and prostrate problems.

Hemlock should NOT be used in home made preparations. It is deadly poisonous and can easily be mistaken for other harmless members of the family.

The seeds can be mistaken for those of the caraway { which are used for culinary purposes.} This can be a fatal mistake.

Hemlock is superficially similar to the cow parsley which flowers earlier but the flowering period can some times overlap. They are also similar to the upright hedge parsley and fine leaved water dropwort. 

Below. Cow parsley is superficially similar to hemlock. However, it lacks the red blotches on the stems and is significantly less harmful.

Reuse of images. 

Images that feature on this page may be reused . However, the name of the author must be attributed along with any relevant license.


Poisonous plants-1 foxglove






Hemlock an in depth article with historical notes from past herbalists and other eminent writers can be viewed by visiting http:// hub.me/agAaE or go to my twitter page liptrot_dave

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