Even the witches in Macbeth knew the sinister nature of hemlock when they foretold the death of Macbeth, stirring their cauldron and chanting “root of hemlock digg’d in the dark.” Often cited as one of the most poisonous plants in the world, it’s no wonder that hemlock has earned the sinister name “dead man’s fingers.” But these poisonous plants are not only found in the Scottish Highlands of Macbeth. Both poison hemlock and water hemlock are found here in North America, and, even within our own watershed.

Deadly Identification

There are two kinds of hemlock: The first is “poison hemlock,” or conium maculatum, which is a biennial herbaceous plant that most often grows in drier areas, such as forests, meadows, trails, and ditches. The second is “water hemlock,” or cicuta maculata, which is a perennial herbaceous plant that most often grows in moist areas, such as the shorelines of lakes, rivers, streams, ponds and marshes

Poison hemlock and water hemlock look similar. Both respective species possess green stems with purple spots and clusters of small, white flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace, but there are some differences. Poison hemlock has intricate leaves that look like ferns, and fleshy white roots. Water hemlock has oval leaves with jagged edges and thick, tuberous roots.

Poisonous Potential

Though water hemlock is said to be more poisonous and its effects to be more painful, both plants can be fatal. Within just a few minutes of consuming hemlock, the unsuspecting eater will begin to experience nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, confusion, dilation of the pupils, closing of the throat, muscle contractions, convulsions and seizures. As the toxins, coniine in poison hemlock and cicutoxin in water hemlock, attack the central nervous system, the body is overcome with ascending paralysis. This paralysis begins at the outer reaches of the body, usually the feet, and eventually makes its way to the respiratory muscles, resulting in respiratory failure and death.

Both poison hemlock and water hemlock have been used throughout history to commit murders, carry out assassinations and sentence prisoners to death, but most hemlock deaths are accidental, eaten by hapless hikers because of their resemblance to edible roots, such as wild parsnip, sium suave, and wild carrot, daucus carota.

Years ago, a young man and his older brother went hiking in the woods in Maine. During their hike, the younger man collected some plants that he thought were edible but, after taking three bites from the root of one of the plants, he began to vomit and convulse. By the time emergency responders were able to reach the young man, his pupils had dilated, his skin had turned blue, his heart was beating rapidly. He soon began to have seizures and died a couple hours later. It was water hemlock that he had consumed.

A Sign From the Other Side

Another hiker, this one from Colorado, knew well enough to not to eat the hemlock that he found in the bush, but says he was visited by a woman who had consumed the poisonous plant. As the story goes, the hiker set out into the backwoods of Colorado on his own, with little equipment and the location of a campsite in mind. Looking for a little solitude, he was hoping to hike far enough that he wouldn’t encounter any other hikers.

After a few hours, the hiker grew tired, so he made his way off the trail and laid down to have a nap. Before he could fall asleep, he noticed a plant that he had read about in a guide book and thought it appeared to be some kind of hemlock. Just then, as the hiker noticed the plant, he heard a voice, the voice of a woman with an English accent. “I can’t move my eyes.” The hiker quickly sat up and looked around. There was nobody there. The hiker was startled but he told himself that he just imagined it. He was tired and his mind must have wandered into some dream state, half awake and half asleep. Still, he was a little shaken, so headed back to the trail and continued on his hike.

After hiking for a few more hours, it began to get dark, so the hiker decided to make dinner while he still had some light. He set up his camping stove and began to boil water. It was then that he noticed more of the hemlock plant that he had seen earlier. Having an interest in plant identification, the hiker decided to pick some of the plant, so that he could compare it to the plant described in his guide book at home. Just as he picked the plant, he heard something rustling in the bushes. The hiker assumed it was just a small animal and didn’t think much of it, other than the unusual timing. He put the plant in his pocket, returned to his dinner and then continued on his hike. He still hadn’t seen another hiker.

By the time the hiker reached his campsite, it was completely dark out, so he put on his headlamp and began to set up camp. When he finished, the hiker stood up and looked out into the woods. Something reflected the light of his headlamp. His heartbeat doubled. Draped across some bushes was a white dress. Eyes wide, the hiker looked all around with his headlamp but he didn’t see or hear anything. He made his way over to the dress and, without touching it, took a closer look. It was a Victorian dress made of intricate, ornate lace but the strangest thing about it was that there was no dirt, leaves or twigs on the dress. It hadn’t even been there long enough to gather dust.

In that moment, as the hiker stared at the dress, he became suddenly and intensely aware of the hemlock in his pocket. He remembers wondering, oddly, if you could keep the plant alive for a while the way you keep flowers in a vase. He stood there, staring at the dress, unsure of what to do. He remembers thinking, “Should I take it? Should I pretend I never found it? Should I still stay the night? Should I leave?” He remembers feeling that he wasn’t in any danger but had a creeping sense of sadness, anger and dread. It wasn’t until the hiker heard another rustling in the bushes that he decided he should go. He headed back to camp, packed up and left that night.

When the hiker returned home, the hemlock plant that he had put in his pocket was gone.

Some say that the ghost of a woman who had died from hemlock was warning the hiker not to eat the poisonous plant. Others say the night was dark, the hiker was tired and his mind was playing tricks on him. No one but the hiker will ever know if his story is true but one thing is for sure: Edible plant enthusiasts, beware.

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Last modified: September 5, 2017

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