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What Not to Eat: Poison Hemlock

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A while back local news outlets began reporting that a woman in nearby Tacoma, Washington may have died from ingesting poison hemlock. The tale being told is she harvested it to eat – thinking it was actually something else. A wild carrot perhaps? Regardless, it was a deadly mistake nobody else should have to repeat if we work together to educate ourselves about these pest plants and be sure to eradicate them in our own gardens and communities.

Poison Hemlock Flower and Foliage on Phinney Ridge

Poison Hemlock Flower and Foliage on Phinney Ridge

Oh, and yes, this is that same toxic plant that Socrates ingested when sentenced to death. And, yes, it’s not a nice way to go. The toxins, which exist in all parts of this plant, attack the nervous system creating a range of scary, life-threatening reactions ultimately potentially causing death.

As more and more of us are growing more and more of our own food, it becomes ever more critical we stay on alert for noxious, toxic weeds in our midst. Hemlock is a weed in our area, and frankly, it’s a really pretty plant. It grows rapidly, easily reaching 8′ tall in the spring and covered with lovely carrot-family flowers that are easily mistaken for lovely Queen Anne’s Lace. But, don’t be fooled – this stuff can kill you. And, it must be eradicated – now! Why now? Well, for the most part, poison hemlock is just now in full bloom. And what follows blooms? Seed pods that get carried rapidly to new locations where they seed and spread this nasty weed to new locations.


Purple streaking on Conium maculatum lower stalks

Purple streaking on Conium maculatum lower stalks

As of the writing of this article, Poison Hemlock is a class-C noxious weed (or non-regulate weed, depending on where you read) in King County, Washington and a class-B weed in Washington State. It does not appear to be on the USDA Federal Noxious Weed list. Essentially this means the regulating committees recommend removing it, but you aren’t going to get in trouble for having it on site – unless of course you or someone else eats it from your property. Truly, the best thing to do is get rid of it. Dig it out. Pick off and carefully destroy any seeds. Be safe.

Not sure how to identify this plant? First, look for a tall, lacy formed perennial. Next, look for multiple flat, panicles of white flowers all over the plant. Take a sniff  (if you dare) — does it smell musty? Look at the base of the plant or at the stems — are they purple or have purplish streaking? Have you cut any of the stems? Do they appear hollow? If you answered yes to any of these questions, definitely don’t take a bite. You shouldn’t need your nervous system to go haywire or your heart to stop beating to convince you it is time to take out this weed. Instead, do the right thing – eradicate it before it proliferates any further in your garden or your neighborhood.

For additional assistance identifying and understanding what makes a weed noxious, visit any of the weed list sites linked in earlier portions of this article. For additional help clarifying if your pretty, white-flowered, lacy-foliaged perennial is or isn’t Conium maculatum (aka poison hemlock), refer to the King County Noxious Weed page here.

And, once again, a reminder from one who grows a lot of her own food. Never eat anything you aren’t 100% certain is edible. Whether it’s a pretty flower, a lovely leaf or a fluffy fungi — be sure. Or you may be dead.

(And one final note: I did see this plant growing near a design client’s garden. I alerted my client who will be working with her neighbor to eradicate this weed asap. She was quite thankful for my eye toward her safety, especially since her two year old is going through the “every-plant-goes-in-the-mouth” phase of life.)

10 comments on “What Not to Eat: Poison Hemlock

  1. Dana on

    Yeah, the stuff looks an awful lot like Queen Anne’s Lace which makes excellent jellies and is popular amongst wildcrafters. I’d like to try it, but even though I know the difference, I don’t feel like taking the risk!

  2. Sharon Harvey on

    I feel terrible for the poor woman who ingested hemlock. Thank you for this valuable information–I hope it keeps others from making a similar mistake. Do you know of any summer plants or weeds that we should keep our dogs from eating?

  3. LJ on

    Thank you for writing about this! I have a plant, in my weeds for the first time, that is everything you described, except I haven’t checked for the purple streak. The thing is about 8 ft tall already! Hollow and musty definitely apply. Need to keep the pets away from that!

  4. Kristin on

    Ok the plant near me is confusing…it doesn’t stink, it has a small dark flower in the middle of the white flowers, has a hairy stalk, it flowered just recently (summer), however it’s base has purple stripes…which is it???

  5. rhaglund on

    Kristin, Unfortunately I can’t tell you what you have based on your description. You might be able to bring in a local consultant, contact your local noxious weed extension office or master gardeners for a full identification of the plant.

    If in doubt, I’d take it out.

    Good luck!

  6. Garden Mentors on

    Ian, our best understanding of this plant is that all parts are toxic. How much or how little it takes to kill you isn’t something we are qualified to state. There are several links within this article to further information and detail on the plant. Perhaps you will find what you need on those sites. In the meantime, probably best to avoid tasting any of it!

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