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Hemlock Conium maculatum { Past and Present Medicinal Uses}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Flowers of Hemlock


Components of Hemlock

German  Flora { Painter Jacob Sturm}
German Flora { Painter Jacob Sturm} | Source


Hemlock belongs to the order of plants known as the Apiales and placed in the family Apiaceae [Formerly the Umbelliferae} It is a relative of the Wild Carrot**,Parsley,Celery and other beneficial members of this group.

However, this species that was once frequently used in herbal medicine,is very poisonous, and is correctly, also referred to as Poison Hemlock.It is also related to the Cow Parsley**and Sweet Cicely ,both of which are similar in appearance.

Because this family has beneficial species with look alike poisonous species, it is very important to correctly identify the species, before any use is made of them in medicinal or culinary preparations. To aid indentification of the Hemlock we will commence with a description of this species.

** Hubs I have already completed on the species.

Illustration of Conium maculatum

Kohler's Medizinal Plants--Public domain
Kohler's Medizinal Plants--Public domain

Description of Hemlock

The root of this species is biennial,somewhat fusiform and branched.It is whitish,about half an inch thick { One and a half cm} and from eight to ten inches {20-25 cm} long and exudes,when young,a milky juice.

The stem is erect and generally three to four feet high,but in certain conditions in may easily double this. The stem is cylindrical and smooth,stout below and branched above it is hollow, bright green and is distinctly marked or mottled with small irregular stains of spots of a port wine colour,and often covered with a bluish exudation,it may also have a white 'bloom' which is very easily rubbed off. { These red blotches and stains are an important identification indicator}

The leaves are numerous and those of the first year and the lower ones are very large and may reach two feet long.They are arranged in an alternate manner, long stalked and tripinnate { divided along the midrib into opposite pairs of leaflets and these again divided and sub-divided in a similar manner}. The outline The upper leaves are much smaller and nearly stalk-less,and they tend to clasp the stem often two or three together, they are more oblong in outline,but still divided into segments. They are of a uniform green colour.

The umbels that form the flower head are relatively small one and a half to two inches wide. they have many spreading radii {umbrella like spokes} twelve to sixteen,the tiny individual flowers are borne on short stalks. At the base of the main umbel there are four to eight lance-shaped bracts. At the base of the smaller umbels there are three to four spreading bractlets.

The petals of the flowers are white, the stamens a little longer than the petals with white anthers. The fruit {Capsule containing the seeds} is small, broad, ridged and compressed laterally and smooth. Both the flowers and fruit bear a resemblance to those of Caroway**,however, they posses prominent crenate {wavy } edges.

The plant is relatively common in waste places, by hedges,roadsides and near manure heaps. They flower from June till the end of July.

Blotched stem of Conium maculatum

Taken in Lincolnshire UK
Taken in Lincolnshire UK | Source

General and historical observations

To try and distingush this plant from those of which it is sometimes mistaken for, it is sufficient to observe its shining spotted stem,fetid smell when bruised, the waved edges of the fruit {in August},the presence of bracts below the umbels, which are not nearly as long as those of the similar looking Fool's parsley,Aethusa cynapium**,while it is nearly three times the size of the latter.

The Rough Chervil,having a spotted stem is sometimes gathered for Hemlock, but it is distinguished by its swollen joints together with other obvious characters.The Generic name of Conium derives from the Greek word Konas which indicates whirling around in allusion to the giddiness produced in the human brain by a poisonous dose of the juice of this plant.

Theophrasus,relates that the Thrasyas boasted of having discovered a potion compounded with the juice of the common poppy etc, which would " destroy life without pain". Aelian tells us that when the old men of Cean had become useless to the state and tired of the infirmities of life, they invited each other to banquets,and having crowned themselves in festive mood, drank the Conium,and terminated their existence.

The tranquility maintained by Socrates {Phoedon of Plato} after being given the deadly poison decreed by Areopagus, will scarcely accord with the known effects of Hemlock juice, but that it was an ingredient of the fatal cup seems exceedingly probable, as the the plant is very common in Greece,and a southern climate appears to greatly augment the energetic properties.

When the summer is over ,the stalks rattle in the wind and country folk called them Kecksies, and the Hemlock was in former times referred to as Kex. One old writer conveys " I'll make these withered kexes near my body". The word Keck or Kex was entirely applied to the dried stalks. This was so in Kent and John Clare {rustic English poet}, who well knew all the common names of flowers in Nothhamtonshire describing the summer scene by a river's side writes---

" Some went searching by the wood,

Peeping neath the waving thorn,

Where the pouch-lipp'd cuckoo-bud,

From its snug retreat torn:

Where the ragged robin stood,

With its purple stem streak'd with jet,

And the crow flowers golden hued,

Careless, plenty easier met"

" As the cart rut rippled down,

With burden of the rain,

Boys came drabbling from the town'

Glad to meet their sports again;

Stopping up their mimic rills,

Till they forced their watery bound,

Then the keck-made water mills

In the current whisk'd around"

Hemlock taken from below


Past medicinal uses and historical notes

The fresh plant has a disagreeable odour, which is described as resembling mice or cat's urine. The odour of the properly dried leaves is strong and heavy and narcotic and the taste slightly bitter and narcotic. It was recommended that the leaves required for medicinal purposes should be gathered just before the flowers expand,and the stalks rejected. Great care was taken to keep them from the actions of air and light..

Grieger, obtained a volatile oil possessing alkaloidal properties,this he named 'Conia' and stated that the dried leaves of Hemlock contain very little of it,and even an extract of the fresh leaves contain very little,unless prepared with a gentle heat yet speedily. Dr. Christian { London Medical gazette 1863} states, " The Conia of Greiger is colourless,lighter than water,of a very powerful repulsive odour,and intensely acrid.It has a strong alkaline action on reddened litmus.It is readily soluble in different acids,which it neutralizes and is sparingly soluble in water, to which it imparts its power and taste."

It is extremely poisonous. Several cases are on record the deleterious effects of this plant on man. Dr Watson { Philos Transactions vol xliii}, mentions two cases that were fatal. The sufferers were two Dutch soldiers,who had taken the leaves mixed with other herbs in broth." They were seized with giddiness.coma,convulsions and death".

Agasson { Orfila,Trauitedes poisons,tom iii}, speaks of a man ,who ate,after taking a poisonous dose was affected with convulsions in the upper part of the body,while the inferior extremities were paralysed. In others he remarked furious delirium.On examination after death, the vessels been found to be much congested,and the blood remarkably fluid.

Very different accounts were given regarding the roots of this plant. Ray { Phil.Trans. Vol xix page 634}, stated, " That three or four ounces of the root have been swallowed without any remarkable affect" Mr. Curtis,speaks of a gentleman who had some of the large roots boiled and found them agreeable eating with his meat,as carrots. Conversely Storck, relates, that a drop or two of the milky juice applied to his tongue produced great pain and swelling of that organ.,and for some time deprived him of the power of speech.

Fee,informs us, in Russia and the Crimea, Hemlock is inert and eatable,and that in the south of Europe it is extremely poisonous-soil and situation,and the time of the year,have an influence on this plant.

The treatment recommended by the herbalist of that time, in the case of poison which had been swallowed, was an intake of vegetable acids, especially vinegar and lemon juice it 'counteracted' its deadly effects, after the patient had been encouraged to vomit the substance taken.

The root, leaves and herb and especially the juice of Hemlock,were,in former times considered to be softening, resolvent and anodyne and were employed against tumours and against rheumatic pains and gout. Avicenna { Caron Med,ed F.Paulinus tom i } recommended a plaster of it for resolving tumours of the testes and female breast,and for preventing the coagulation of milk in the latter.

It seems however, that later herbalists were indebted to the enterprising Baron Storck for his knowledge relating to the therapeutical effects of Hemlock. Although some of his statements were no doubt exaggerated,many seem to have been confirmed by them. he employed it in various indurations of the viscera {intestines},Scirrhus { firm cancerous growth} ulcers,tumours,cataract,diseased bone,leucorrhoea and jaundice among other affections.

Although British Practioner's did not believe it could cure cancer they did find it efficacious in allaying the pain and correcting 'the fetid discharge' from cancerous sores. Dr,Bigelow { American Medical Botany} speaks highly of its effects in jaundice. As a sedative it was regarded as being a good substitute for,or,adjunct to opium**,relieving the irritability of the system in cancer,and procuring sleep in many nervous diseases.

In whooping cough,combined with Ipecacuanha, it was considered a valuable remedy. However,one herbalist conveyed this warning. " Like any other powerful medicine it acts very differently on some individuals, in consequences of idiosyncracy,and indtead of affording relief,produces dimness of the eyes and even convulsions"

Others inform that the powder of the leaves was the best way to administer Hemlock,until some mode of attaining uniformity in the preparation of the extract can be discovered. The starting dose was recommended at two to three grains,gradually increasing until a slight vertigo forbade it.

The above information is for historical purposes only and not meant as a self guide to medication .hemlock is dangerous and poisonous.

Seeds of Hemlock


Modern day uses of Hemlock

The Homeopathic remedy Conium is derived from the Hemlock plant.However, each and every part of the Hemlock plant encloses an extremely toxic concoction of alkaloides that are sedative and narcotic. Consumption of even a small part of this plant results in paralysis and effects both the cardiac as well as the respiratory systems, and can cause death soon after.

The Homeopathic conium is used today but is prepared in such a way that the toxic properties are so diminished as to be useful in the treatment of a number of health conditions. Conium health and beauty products made commercially are safe to use. As far as the layman is concerned this plant should be left well alone,and foragers who gather other beneficial species of this family should always be on their guard against harvesting any plant whose stems have purple red blotches, for such a mistake could prove fatal.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice ,

      Hi Deb, I am glad to have been of assistance. Knowledge about identification of this family will keep you from harm. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I will never harvest hemlock, I promise. Thanks to you, I know exactly what it is now and will steer clear of it.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello, congratulations on your Master Herbalist Diploma. The history of our flora is always interesting. Many treatments were trial and error in those days gone by { as I am sure you are aware} but interesting nevertheless. Thank you for your vote up interesting and useful,all very much appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      Hello,Devika, yes many of these herbs are very similar in appearance and great care needs to be taken not to mistake these poisonous ones for the beneficial ones. Thank you ,too, for the Vote up ,useful,and interesting and most of all for your loyal follow. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image

      Alise- Evon 

      4 years ago

      This was very interesting. I have a Master Herbalist diploma; we certainly did not learn uses of Hemlock. I knew it was poisonous, but this gave me some nice history of its use in the past and why we do not generally use it today.

      Voted interesting and useful.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      There is that similarity of the ''Wild Carrot**,Parsley,Celery and other beneficial members of this group.'' A different kind of plant for me and I am amazed by the medicinal uses. A very helpful hub.Voted up, useful, interesting.


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