The Pernicious Hemlock Water Dropwort

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

Walking around a local lake recently, a plant, that delights to grow in these situations was thriving in the margins. It has flowers in large white umbels, a sure sign, that the plant belongs to the same family as beneficial herbs such as hogweed, angelica, parsley, fennel, goutweed and celery. However, this plant is certainly not beneficial, in fact it has caused more poisonings and more fatalities than any other member of this family, or indeed, any other.

New Young Growth

the new seasons growth of the hemlock water dropwort. Photograph by D.A.L.
the new seasons growth of the hemlock water dropwort. Photograph by D.A.L.

An example to highlight this fact was given in the Emergency Medical Journal, which states---A group of eight young adults who were on holiday in Argyll collected what they thought was water parsnips from a small stream. The roots were cleaned and washed, chopped and added to a curry. Most of the group consumed the curry but most of them only consumed small amounts of the root which was easily identifiable in the curry. Partly because there was some doubt among them as regarding its nature and partly because some did not like the taste of it.

Early the next morning ten hours after being ingested one of the group fell ill and had a witnessed seizure lasting about five minutes. he was taken to hospital feeling very ill. No connection was made at this point to the ingestion of the root the night before.

Gradually over the next four hours a number of the group became unwell and feeling nauseated. During this time a number of the group consumed the leftovers for lunch. symptoms of this group had varying degrees of nausea, vomiting, lethargy, sweating and what was diagnosed as low grade fever. One of this group also had a seizure.

Eventually one member of the group took a police officer to the stream to take a sample of the plant. Part of the plant was taken to a local expert who positively identified the plant. Four of the group required admission to hospital. One of the group required treatment for 48hours while three were discharged after 24 hours.

The main toxic constituent of the plant is Oenanthotoxin. The main concentration of this substance is found in the roots. It is at its highest during winter and spring. and ingestion of even small amounts can lead to fatalities. Doctors believed that the boiling process involved in making the curry helped to diminish a lot of the poison. They concluded by saying that the increasing interest in "natural food" accidental poisoning of this nature may become more frequent..

When the Irish lads were employed here in England to dig out the countries canal systems, fatalities occurred when the stems of were mistaken for those of wild celery. So as I have stressed in other hubs, correct identification of wild plants is essential, and any plant that can not be positively identified should never be eaten. This family of plants in particular has many similar looking species that are easily mistaken for each other. In most communities there will be someone with knowledge of these plants who is available to help in identifying the species.

Canals Are a Favoured Location for the Plant

When the canal systems were being dug out many fatalities occurred by mistaking the plant for wild celery Photograph by D.A.L.
When the canal systems were being dug out many fatalities occurred by mistaking the plant for wild celery Photograph by D.A.L.

Basic Biology of the Hemlock Water Drop Wort.

I will endeavour to describe the species in some detail with the help of photographs, so that the reader may be interested in referring too, should they be interested in using this family of plants. The majority of this family are harmless and beneficial to human health However, the more poisonous members include the Hemloch,Conium maculatum, Cowbane Cicta virosa and Fools parsley,Aethusa cynapium.

HEMLOCH WATER DROPWORT Oenanthe crocata -ROOTS.--The roots are pernnial and fleshy of a pale yellow colour when cleaned. The taste is sweetish then bitter, but not unpleasant taste, but has we have seen very poisonous. Because they grow in margins of ponds, lakes and ditches the roots are sometimes exposed by running water. This is tempting for cattle to eat and many cases of poisoning of cattle due to eating the root have been recorded.

The roots are tuberous and not unlike those of the garden Dahlia in form while those of the water parsnip are single and conical in outline.

The stems of this tall plant { and indeed the foliage} are superficially similar to those of the celery. The stems are thick, erect and much branched above. They are tough and dark green.

The leaves are also superficially similar to the foliage of celeruy. However, the leaf segments can vary in form. The lower leaves have short stalks that have sheaths were the stalk meets the stem {typical of this family of plants}. The leaves are quite large and spreading in habit often reaching more than a foot {30cm}long. The whole leaf being triangular in outline. The leaflets are diamond or wedged shaped one to one and a half inches 2-2and a half cm} long with deeply irregular lobes, dark green above and paler and more shiny below. The upper leaves are much smaller, nearly stalk-less the segments narrow and acute.

Leaf and leaflets

The wedge or diamond shaped foliage of the plant. Note the triangular outline of the whole leaf. Photograph by D.A.L.
The wedge or diamond shaped foliage of the plant. Note the triangular outline of the whole leaf. Photograph by D.A.L.

The flowers as previously mentioned are borne in large umbels. {think umbrella} with many strong spokes or rays. They flower from the beginning of June till the end of July. They are succeeded by a brown coloured globular fruit head4-6 mm long.

Flowwer umbel

The large umbels of the hemlock water dropwort. Photograph by D.A.L.
The large umbels of the hemlock water dropwort. Photograph by D.A.L.

It is a plant to be admired for its form and for its stature {up to five feet tall} and its large umbels and attractive foliage. But most of all it is a plant that needs treating with the greatest respect and it is a plant better left well alone. Never use this species in medicinal purposes and NEVER EVER consume it. You have been warned

.

OTHER HUBS IN THIS SERIES---

HOGGING THIS HERB FOR FREE FOOD. {HOGWEED}

INTRODUCING THE COW PARSLEY

.GOUTWEED HAS A FOOT HOLD.{HERBAL APPLICATION}

PARSLEY AND TIME.

Growing by a lake

The plant delights to grow by water,Photograph by D.A.L.
The plant delights to grow by water,Photograph by D.A.L.

More by this Author


Comments 11 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

DDE,

Hello Devika , thank you for your kind words which are always welcomed and most encouraging. Best wishes to you.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

THE PERNICIOUS HEMLOCK WATER DROPWORT great hub with so much to learn about here and you just know how to present your informative hubs, well done!


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi Trish_M your welcome thank you for the visit.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

Thanks, D.A.L. ~ that's definitely worth knowing :)


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi wrenfrost56 thank you for visiting. I am glad you now know now that the plant is dangerous and that you will now be able to recognise it. Thank you also for your appreciated comments.

Trish_M Thank you too for your visit. In my hubs I try to define which are the innocent and which are the guilty. Jack by the hedge is in the cabbage family. The common hemlock which is very poisonous is in this family of plants and may be recognised by the red blotches on its tall, erect stem.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 6 years ago from The English Midlands

There are a number of flowers that resemble each other and I often wonder which are the innocent ones (eg. Jack by the Hedge) ~ and which are hemlock.

Very useful! Thanks.


wrenfrost56 profile image

wrenfrost56 6 years ago from U.K.

Another well written hub D.A.L. and once again lovely pictures. I am very glad I read this also as I had no idea it was poisenous! Keep up the good work. :)


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 6 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

timorous, nice to hear from you again, thank you for your comment and for your advise.

Challah1202,nice to meet you and thank you for taking the time to comment.

Darski, many plants in this family have the umbrella shape and many of them are harmless. Thank you my friend for your kind comments


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

D.A.L. this is a fascinating hub, I have seen this plant before with the flowers like an umbrella shape. I also think you take the best photos, thank you for this awesome hub, your fan and friend, thumbs up


Challah1202 profile image

Challah1202 6 years ago from Chandler, TX

I rarely eat plants harvested in the wild, but on occasion I have. I will pay more attention in the future. Good job.


timorous profile image

timorous 6 years ago from Me to You

Hi D.A.L. Isn't it curious how nature can be so cruel?

You really need to know your species if you ever consider eating any found fruit or plant, when you're out on a nature walk. Same goes for mushrooms. Nice photos once again.

P.S. The other hubs mentioned above ought to be 'links'. Right now they're just text [as I write this comment].

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