Wildlife Column: Common deadly hemlock on the rise

This was the poison of choice in ancient times as the state poison of the Greeks. It was for example, given as a dose to execute the philosopher Socrates.

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 6:00 am
Hemlock taken by Prof Ian Rotherham.

Death is slow with paralysis, respiratory failure and ultimately stupor but without losing consciousness until the end itself. With warmer summers this plant is spreading far and wide though it is still more common in England down south. The plant is also widely naturalised around the world as an invasive, non-native species. Rich in chemical alkaloids only a tiny amount can prove fatal. Herbal medical practitioners used to prescribe the extract of hemlock in small amounts as a painkiller. In spite of the serious safety concerns, hemlock is still used to treat bronchitis, whooping cough, asthma, arthritis, and other conditions. Since hemlock has toxins which impact on the transmission of nerve impulses to muscles there may be some benefits but these are offset by the huge risk of serious adverse effects.

Whilst hemlock is in the same family as highly edible species such as carrot, the somewhat rank, mousy, fetid smell and purple-botched stems give it away as not good – so generally humans and animals such as livestock will avoid it. Growing easily to six feet or more it should be easily recognisable and has a distinctive shape to its stem and flowers. This separates it from say cow parsley or common hogweed both of which are found in similar habitats to hemlock. Younger plants are less aromatic and can occasionally be mistaken for parsley, parsnip, or wild celery and I recall that a ‘wild forager’ managed to poison his entire family this way. Unfortunately it is the younger growths which are the most poisonous. Essentially, if you don’t know it then certainly don’t eat it, and don’t feed it to anyone else! Apparently the dry stems lose their toxicity and were once used by children as pea-shooters. According to botanist Richard Mabey, the cut sections of stems were used by fishermen to make moulds for their lead weights.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer & broadcaster on wildlife & environmental issues, has a blog at https://ianswalkonthewildside.wordpress.com.