Hemlock and Hemlock Water-Dropwort

[Please also read this update on Hemlock Water Dropwort]

For some time I’d been puzzled by the many writings and conversations warning of how easily Hemlock – the poisonous plant said to have been administered (or self-administered?) to Socrates by way of capital punishment – could be mistaken for a range of other, edible plants.

Hemlock with its distinctive purple splotches

Hemlock with its distinctive purple splotches

John Wright’s Hedgerow foraging guide usefully contains a section dedicated to the nasties you should really seek to avoid while foraging, and so, fairly early in my foraging adventures, I turned to his entry for Hemlock (Conium maculatum) to get its subtly distinctive features clear in my mind. It turned out to be a great strapping stalky thing with extremely distinctive purple spots and splotches. None of the other stalky umbellifers have this loud, decorative warning sign, and once seen it’s easy to identify again, with a moment’s examination – hence my confusion about people’s warnings of the ease with which misidentification can happen (and lead to truly horrible consequences).

I then occasionally, I’m afraid, snorted a bit at people’s worries about, say, misidentifying hemlock as wild carrot. Sorry about that; not very attractive. (And of course it is always worth taking care, even with hemlock’s distinctive blotches marking it out. Mark Williams explains: “Coniine is the main active toxin which attacks the central nervous system, leading to paralysis and subsequent asphyxiation. 8 – 10 leaves should send you to your maker, though the toxins are more concentrated in the roots and seeds.”)

However, if I’d turned just one page backwards in John Wright’s catalogue of nasties, I would have found the similarly named Hemlock Water-Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) – a much more anonymous and benign-looking thing, which turns out to be the single most poisonous of all British plants – and which I could, in fact, easily envisage being mistaken for a range of stalky edibles. This, I suspect, is the source of most of the trepidation around misidentification of ‘hemlock’.

[PS. Since writing this, some tweeters have suggested that HWD may not be our single most poisonous plant. Aconite and digitalis are nominated as contenders for that title. Something to investigate – though perhaps not too closely…]

In any case, Wright gives each of these unrelated ‘hemlocks’ three red Xs in his guide, his most toxic rating. He’s got some horrible stories of painful deaths and hospitalisations if you need to be frightened into taking care and doing your research.

So yes, I now agree: take some time and care to get to know how to identify your Hemlock Water-Dropwort if you’re keen on plants such as cow parsley, wild parsnip, alexanders and wild fennel. Don’t simply use this post (!), go to the ID guides and spend some time closely examining your suspects in the wild, too, but some basic features of HDW include flat, parsley-like leaves, very furrowed stalks, yellow-green flowers not unlike alexanders, distinctive long bracts beneath the flowers and hollow stems – see the photos below, showing an enormous patch of the stuff currently growing alongside the Great Stour river just as it enters Canterbury city centre. Just like joggers, walkers and tourists, it loves a nice riverbank. [Update: I now have mighty doubts that what is pictured below is, in fact, Hemlock Water-Dropwort – if you have ID skills in this area, do chip in and say what you think it could be.]

[Please also read this update on Hemlock Water Dropwort]

hemlock water dropwort flowers hemlock water dropwort hemlock water dropwort hemlock water dropwort stalk and leaves hemlock water dropwort leaves



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