Apparently more education regarding poisonous plants is needed; each year there are over 63,000 calls to poison centers from people who have ingested plants, and 80% of those calls involve children. Less than 20% require medical intervention but of those some could experience terrible sickness, or even death.
In 1992 two brothers went searching the woods of Maine for American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius.) After finding what they thought was ginseng, they ate part of the root. The younger brother became violently ill within 30 minutes and died in an emergency room less than 3 hours later. The older brother suffered through seizures and delirium, but lived. The brothers were 23 and 39 years old-old enough to know better than to eat unidentified plant roots. The root they had eaten was that of the water hemlock (Cicuta maculata.)
Water hemlock is in the Carrot family (Apiaceae) and the root, which reportedly “smells delicious,” like a parsnip, is often mistaken for a wild carrot or parsnip. The smooth stems can be green, purple, or green with purple spots or streaks. The lower stems are hollow and the white flower clusters, called umbels, are made up of small 1/8″ flowers with 5 petals and 5 stamens. They resemble Queen Anne’s lace, which is in the same family. The plant grows in moist places; usually near streams and ponds, and blooms in July and August.
Water hemlock is closely related to poison hemlock, which grows in the western part of the U.S. and is generally believed to be the poison that Socrates drank. Water hemlock is every bit as deadly and is listed by the USDA as the most violently toxic plant known in North America. A single bite of the root can lead to an agonizing death.
To a child the hollow stems would seem an excellent pea shooter, and this is why parents would be wise to study this plant and know it well. There are many thousands of pages of information about it online, but a field guide is still a good investment. All parts of this plant are extremely poisonous and anyone accidentally ingesting it should be taken to an emergency room immediately along with the part of the plant that was eaten, if possible.
This native plant is not rare; the pictures shown here were taken just feet from my office door. If you think you have found water hemlock on or near your property the best thing to do is leave it alone. Since the poisonous sap can be absorbed through the skin, it shouldn’t be touched unless exposed skin is covered and eye protection is worn. The likelihood of digging up the entire root is slim and the attempt dangerous, so call your local extension service for advice rather than trying to eradicate it yourself. In New Hampshire, that number is 1-877-398-4769. Use email@example.com to reach them by email. Remember: Never eat any plant you aren’t absolutely sure of and teach children to never put any part of any plant in their mouth unless an adult is present.