Following my discussion about the hemlocks recently, I’ve since gone on to prove that you should never get complacent when thinking about gathering umbellifers. A little bit of pride in your own supposed knowledge, a little bit of overconfidence, a dose of hubris could be your undoing, and I nearly undid myself (and my beloved) yesterday.
For a while I’d noticed these parsley-like sprigs by Faversham creek (below). Having taken some time to get to know Hemlock Water Dropwort recently, and how to distinguish it from Hemlock, and having seen it in full flower by the Great Stour in Canterbury, I was feeling pretty attuned and was fairly confident that it was, indeed, HWD (a decent dose of which can kill you in a few hours). It ticked boxes: growing near water, flat parsley-like leaves.
I pointed them out to a friend on a later stroll to gather some sea beet from nearby Crab Island, and before I was able to stop him he’d picked a young stalk and declared it smelled like celery. Which it really, really does – it has that lovely fresh green watery snap on the nose. Still, I warned him off and we left it well alone.
And here’s where a bit of inattention and carelessness can do a lot of harm. I had in my mind that HWD is supposed to have an unpleasant, musty, mousey smell. I was of course mixing it up with Hemlock, its purple-bruised namesake. Then, yesterday, back down at Faversham Creek, I thought to myself that, in that case, this must, after all, be some kind of wild celery. I gathered a few stalks, sniffing each to confirm its celery smell, as if that was confirmation that it was safe. That there were no full-grown plants with flower-heads to help with identification for some reason made me less cautious rather than more – I must have been in a rather topsy-turvy mood.
Fortunately I didn’t nibble on any of them. Fortunately, too, I was at the beginning of a two to three hour walk on Ham marsh that allowed me time to think and doubt – and, thankfully, to resolve to keep the ‘celery’ well away from meals and mouths until I had (re)done my research. Once home, lo and behold, an internet search told me instantly that HWD carries a distinct celery smell. And that ‘wild celery’ looks nothing like celery! HWD it almost certainly is. Disappointingly, I’d stashed my stalks of poison in the same plastic bag I’d put the wild rocket I’d found earlier on my walk, so now the whole lot had better be discarded.
It was interesting in this case that actually my instinct had been right when I first pointed it out to my friend and warned him away from it. I then thought that I’d let my analytical mind make some corrections to an overcautious instinct, though this supposed analysis was nothing more than poor memory and a pretty unforgivable confusion with Hemlock. I should be glad, I suppose, that I was, in the end, thorough enough to go back and double- and triple-check what I thought I knew against what the All-Seeing Internet had to say (talking of which, this book was recommended on a bushcraft forum, if you’d like to go deeper into the morbid world of poisonous plants). And therein lies the lesson: interrogate yourself about how it is you think you know something to be safe – then, if you have a scintilla of doubt, go back to your research and pin it down. Though of course, be aware that any plonker can put misinformation out there on the internet, so do some cross-referencing and satisfy yourself about the quality of your sources.
Anyway, I lived to tell the tale, and it’s been a very useful, sobering experience. Shame about that wild rocket though. Shame too about how close the HWD on the creek is growing to some nice goosefoot (left), possibly Fat Hen. I don’t know whether proximity like that creates any poisoning risks beyond the accidental gathering up of the wrong plant, but I’m not going to risk it until I’ve done my research…
PS. I have to confess that I still have some confusion over HWD, and I may (or may not) have misidentified my HWD find on the Great Stour. Going back once again to John Wright, I see that he describes HWD as having umbels of white flowers in half-globes – backed up here and by Mark Williams. What I found on the Great Stour, as you can see, had the parsley-like leaves but its flowers were a slight yellow-white with distinctively long bracts below, which I now cannot find in any description of HWD. So what was it I found by the Great Stour? HWD in a half-formed state, or something else entirely? Do chip in if you have an idea. In any case, the world of umbellifers is worthy of careful study. For now I’m sticking to Alexanders, which I find pretty unmistakeable, though I hope that’s not hubris talking again.