A Writers Guide to Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock is an herbaceous plant from the carrot family that grows up to 8 feet tall. It has a smooth, green stem that is spotted or streaked with red or purple on the lower half. It has dissected hairless leaves that look almost feathery. Small, white flowers are clustered into umbels that can be up to 6 inches across. The taproot is white and fleshy.

This plant looks similar to parsnip, wild carrot, angelica, and water hemlock. The difference is that poison hemlock has the red streaking on the stems and that the stems and leaves are hairless.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Conium maculatum

Common/Folk Names: Australian Carrot Fern, Badman’s Oatmeal, Beaver Poison, Bunk, Caise, California Fern, Deadly Hemlock, Devil’s Bread, Devil’s Porridge, Hever, Nebraska Fern, Poison Hemlock, Poison Parsley, Poison Stinkweed, Snake-weed, Spotted Corobane, Spotted Hemlock, Warlock’s Weed, Wode Whistle, and Woomlicks.

Life Cycle: biennial
Habitat: pastures, roadsides, ditches, waste areas, marshy areas, stream banks, prefers rich soil and low or poorly drained areas
Blooms: summer

Smell: rank, mouse-like, crushed leaves and the root smell stronger
Taste: seeds are “unpleasant”, leaves have a parsnip-like, unpleasent taste

Notes

  • All parts of the plant are poisonous. The seeds are the most toxic.
  • It’s poisonous to both humans and animals.
  • Poison hemlock and water hemlock are two different plants and in different genera, but both are poisonous.
  • Poison hemlock is not related to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree, Tsuga Canadensis.
  • Conium (the genus name) comes from the Greek konas meaning to whirl, which references vertigo, one of the symptoms of ingesting the plant.

History

  • Poison hemlock has eight piperidinic alkaloids. Gamma-coniceine and coniine are the most abundant and account for most of the plant’s acute and chronic toxicity.
  • Ancient Greeks used poison hemlock to execute criminals and other state prisoners; one of the most famous is Socrates.
  • The typical symptoms for poisoning in humans include pupil dilation, dizziness, and trembling followed by slowing of the heartbeat, paralysis of the central nervous system, and muscle paralysis. Death is due to respiratory failure. The victim can’t move but is aware of what is happening, as the mind is unaffected.
  • Poison hemlock was used as a sedative and antispasmodic.
  • Ancient Greek and Arabian physicians administered hemlock juice for externally swelling, joint paints, and skin problems.
  • Also back in ancient times on the Greek island of Keos, when men turned 60, supposedly they drank hemlock to commit suicide. This was known as Kean Law. Food was scare and this allowed sufficient supplies for the rest of the population.
  • There are birds that can eat poison hemlock without any ill effect. However, the birds themselves become toxic and poison humans who eat the birds.
  • The stems of poison hemlock are hollow, and children were known to have been poisoned by the plant when they made whistles from the stems.

Lore

  • Hemlock is associated with necromancers and witches.
  • According to an old English legend, the purple streaks on the stem represent the brand put on Cain’s brow after he committed murder.
  • According to Christian mythology, hemlock grew on the hill where Jesus was crucified. When his blood touched the plant, the plant became toxic and was forever streaked with blood at the base of the plant.
  • Witches were believed to mix poison hemlock with other poisonous plants, to create an ointment that helped them fly. Some suggest that this combination brought on hallucinations and a dreamlike state that made them think they were flying.
  • Spells and rituals use poison hemlock for purifying ritual swords, knives, and magical tools, as well as for astral projection and hexing.

In the Language of Flowers, it means: you will be my death

This is a reference for fiction writers and should not be taken as medical or spiritual advice.

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23 Comments

  1. Seeds have an unpleasant taste? Probably a good warning not to eat them since they’re poisonous.

    1. Yeah! You know there are a lot of these highly poisonous plants that taste bad, yet people eat ’em.

  2. It’s funny you have this post today. I noticed a plant on my walk last week and was wondering if it was hemlock or Queen Anne’s lace. I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference. Now I’ll have to take a closer look at the plant’s stem to see. Thanks for this timely post.

    1. Ha! That is a coincidence. Queen Anne’s Lace is so pretty. I had no idea that it looked like hemlock.

  3. I knew some of this about hemlock, but not about those birds. Now that’s dangerous, isn’t it? I mean you can learn to avoid eating that plant, but how are you going to tell if the bird you bagged for dinner has nibbled on that plant?

    I’d imagine death by hemlock would be agony. Poor Socrates and poor men who turned 60! I’ll bet the women on that island never complained about equal treatment issues.

    1. The bird thing is freaky, but a great murder weapon for a story.

  4. This is not a post the U.S. Government should read. They might start applying some of these principles to the older population to help solve the depleting social security fund. Hope I don’t have a cup of hemlock juice waiting for me in the near future. Though that witches brew might be kind of fun to hallucinate with.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  5. I think I have seen this Poison Hemlock or something similar to it on my morning walks. I am always scared of touching an unknown plant.

    1. I don’t touch anything either.

  6. Hi Holly – I hadn’t realised Hemlock was so dangerous … as to the birds eating the seeds and becoming poisonous – strange. I found this really interesting and will look carefully now at the stems should I see a plant with similar features. Cheers or not! – Hilary

    1. 🙂 Cheers or not to you too! 🙂

  7. I had no idea that it was from the carrot family and that every part is poisonous. Yikes.

  8. Harsh laws on Keos. This is indeed a worrying plant, especially the part about birds eating them. Hopefully I don’t have any around here!

  9. Ooooh, I remember this from an episode of iZombie! I do like the lore behind it.

    1. It’s a popular poison in a lot of shows, especially the older murder mysteries.

  10. You know, that looks an awful lot like the wildflowers I used to pick while growing up. Thankfully there was no red in the stems.

  11. Didn’t know that plant is toxic, I think I’ve seen it so often around my old house!

  12. I am thinking that putting hemlock into a floral display would send a message slightly more threatening than “You will be the death of me.” Kind of like: “You will be the death of me unless I get you first!!”

  13. It’s fascinating to learn more about hemlock. I know of it based on how Socrates died and the witch connection.

  14. I will make a note to knock on your email next time I need botanical advice. 🙂 And I’ll stay away from Hemlock.

  15. Great post! That’s really freaky about the birds that eat hemlock and become poisonous to humans. So weird!

  16. Related to the carrot family. Neato. Also, I would love to get my hand on wild carrots.

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