Wild Flowers: Poison Hemlock
Upon further research, I discovered that what was growing in my backyard was poison hemlock, a Queen Anne’s Lace look-alike and relative. Both are members of the carrot family but poison hemlock is much larger, growing anywhere from 5 to 8 feet in height. It is originally from Europe and North Africa. European colonists brought it here as a garden plant despite its toxicity. It has naturalized here and in other parts of the world where it has been introduced. It prefers moist environments like the banks of streams but is also found in fields, ditches and along roadsides. It has spread so successfully that 12 states consider it an invasive species.
Like its cousin Queen Anne’s Lace, it is a biennial plant with only foliage the first year and then blooming the second year. I first noticed it last year when it was just foliage. Its flowers this year caught my attention and sent me on my journey of discovery. My research indicates that when crushed, the leaves and root have a rank, unpleasant odor. I have not confirmed that, not wanting to touch a possibly lethal plant.
How poisonous is it?
All parts of the plant are poisonous and should be handled with care. It is the hemlock in the fatal drink used to execute Socrates for impiety and corrupting young boys. A lethal dose for a human is 6 to 8 fresh leaves or a few seeds or piece of the root. The poison operates on the central nervous system. Similar to curare, it causes muscular paralysis which spreads throughout the body. When it reaches the respiratory muscles, the victim literally suffocates because he can’t breathe. The only way to survive this is to be put on a ventilator for 48 to 72 hours as the poison wears off.
The poison is also toxic for animals although if ingested in small enough quantities, the animals will survive. If a female is pregnant and survives, her unborn fetus will suffer birth defects.
How do I tell the difference between Queen Anne’s Lace and Poison Hemlock?
There are important differences in the appearance of Queen Anne’s Lace and Poison Hemlock. Poison hemlock is much larger, at 5 to 8 feet, than Queen Anne’s Lace which is only 1 to 2 feet in height. The flowers are also different. Both have flowers that are referred to as umbrels, meaning they are made up of many tiny flowers that held up in an umbrella shape. Queen Anne’s Lace flowers are denser and have the characteristic purple center flower. Poison hemlock flowers are looser and lack a purple flower in the center.
There are also distinct differences in the stems and leaves. Queen Anne’s Lace stems and leaves are green and covered with hairs whereas poison hemlock stems and leaves are hairless and the stems have purple blotches on them.
Wildflowers are an attractive part of the landscape but appearances can be deceiving. Exercise an abundance of caution when gathering bouquets and keep a close eye on children and pets. Don’t allow them to handle or taste any plant unless you are positive that it is safe.
© 2017 Caren White