Poisonous Plants

The Plant of Death and the Witch’s Favorite: The Wild Hemlock

I promised you: during the month of October, you’ll be treated to articles on scary poisonous plants. Enough to make you shudder throughout the month of fright (and herbal teas…!).

Beware, brave readers, for in the dark garden of poisonous plants, the great hemlock is nightmare incarnate. With its serrated leaves and umbrella-shaped white umbels, hemlock looks like an innocent cousin of the wild carrot. However, don’t be fooled by its delicate appearance, for it hides a deadly secret reminiscent of the darkest legends.

Photo: Djtanng

The wild hemlock (Conium maculatum) owes its Latin name, Conium, to the Greek word konas, meaning vertigo. And this is no coincidence. In Athens, this plant was used as a poison to put condemned prisoners to death. And yet, it’s far from being a gentle, painless form of poisoning! Hemlock is responsible for one of the most appalling deaths in the history of botany. In fact, it was as a result of ingesting it that Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, met his sad fate as a man condemned to death. Vertigo, terrifying convulsions, an equally frightening paralysis that gradually spreads to the diaphragm, and finally, mortal asphyxia…

So, have I chosen the right subject to get you in the mood for Halloween? Hehe!

Witchcraft and Herbal Medicine

Straight out of a horror story, hemlock contains a substance called coniine, a powerful neurotoxicant that disrupts the transmission of nerve signals. Symptoms of hemlock poisoning usually begin with a tingling sensation in the mouth, followed by nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. This culminates in progressive paralysis of the muscles, including those controlling breathing.

Victims of execution by poisoning, well aware of their fate, could suffer for hours before death released them from their agony. Poor Socrates!

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).

0.2 grams of coniin is enough to cause the death of an adult. That’s just a few grams of green hemlock fruit. Accidental poisonings still happen today, unfortunately. If you’re the kind of person who puts anything in your mouth (like me!), don’t swallow unless you’re 110% sure you’ve identified the plant. Hemlock is particularly dangerous, and even a tiny amount can harm you.

Green (immature) hemlock fruit. Photo: chris_nelson

Witches knew this, as their recipes in fairy tales sometimes contain this dangerous plant.

In a hot cauldron,

Add toad slime.

Into the potion at midnight,

Boil a few bats.

More than a sinister hint of hemlock,

And the witch stirs.

Photo : RDNE Stock project

However, in herbal medicine, a very, very small dose was once used by doctors to anaesthetize or treat patients suffering from many illnesses. I’d still advise you to consult your doctor if you’re looking for a sedative: there are much safer solutions today!

Witch’s Brew for Halloween

To help you prepare your Halloween meal, here’s a recipe for a relaxing herbal tea to serve to your guests after trick-or-treating:

Hemlock and cat’s pee herbal tea

There’s no hemlock or cat’s pee here, but don’t tell your guests that, mouhahaha!

Make a decoction of valerian roots by leaving them in a saucepan of simmering water for a few minutes. Serve in a clear cup (to enjoy the pee-yellow color!).

Valerian has calming properties and tastes downright… bad! (to my personal taste!) For some people, the smell of valerian is reminiscent of cat urine, just like hemlock. Scare your guests, but don’t poison them!

Photo : Anna Pyshniuk

Recognizing Hemlock

Despite its sinister side, it’s hard to deny hemlock’s unsettling beauty. Its finely dissected leaves and umbels give this plant a mysterious charm that draws the eye. It’s as if nature has created a deadly masterpiece to play with our senses and our deepest fears. (It’s Halloweeeeen!)

A cousin of the carrot and parsnip, this plant has spread to practically every continent, and while penguins are safe from its toxins, everyone else is not. Fortunately, this invasive plant can be distinguished from its cousins by its smell…

Hemlock has a strange, nauseating odor, reminiscent of sweaty feet or cat urine. This macabre scent is actually a defense tactic used by the plant to dissuade herbivores from eating it. A warning they’d do well to heed, otherwise the consequences could be… tragic!

Photo: tere_judith.

As we explore the mysteries of the plant world, the hemlock reminds us that nature can be beautiful and dangerous at the same time. In October, the month of Halloween, when shadows lengthen and horror stories flourish, the hemlock stands as an ominous warning. It reminds us that behind the innocent facade of flora, unimaginable terrors sometimes lurk. So, when you venture into the woods this autumn, be vigilant and wary of the hemlock’s sweet appearance, for it is the very embodiment of the plant nightmare.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

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