A Short History Of Poison Hemlock

As a part of a recent project for university, I along with a group of my peers were looking into poisonous plants. I found the topic both fascinating and frightening however I only had a limited word count and wanted to pay a bit more attention to my favourite poisonous plant; Hemlock.

In 339BC the greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced death. His crime was of corrupting the yo2uth of Athens. His avid student Plato witnessed his death. The story goes as follows: Socrates was brought a drink. He drank the drink and then walked around his cell until his legs felt heavy, then he lay down. A guard asked whether he could feel his feet and legs, he replied that he could not. A short while later Socrates became silent and he died. Within the drink was the infamous poison from the poison Hemlock plant.

From the family Apiaceae, Conuium maculatum is a highly poisonous herbaceous flowering plant. The plant is a perennial (meaning to live for more than two years unlike and annual that lives for 1 or biennials that live for 2) and native to Europe. It grows within fields and pastures, preferring wet soils and coastal areas. It is easily confused with parley due to the lacy look of the plant.

The plant has five alkaloids making it incredibly deadly. The poison has bee1n said to work from the outside in. A complete mad man by the name of John Harley stated that “There was a distinct impairment of motor power.” He was a British doctor and took small amount of the plant experimentally and published his findings in 1869. It is now known that the poison has paralysing effects. Starting off by the numbing of the limbs and eventually paralysing the lungs.

I think the most horrifying thing about this plant is that it is said to have no effect on the brain. This meaning that you have to endure this horrible process entirely conscious.

Most deaths from the plant are due to misidentification. Most recently a lady from Washington state died in 2010 after eating a salad containing poison Hemlock. Between 1972 and 1990 there were 17 cases of hemlock poisoning. Although this was due to wild birds eating hemlock and being unaffected by it. Then the birds were eaten and due to the toxins remaining active one person died from respiratory failure and three died from kidney failure.

This all being said the key difference and thing to look for when trying to avoid the tragic deaths of those previously mentioned would be to look at the stems of the plant. Poison Hemlock stems are hollow and speckled with purple blotches. The leaves when crushed have an odour described as smelling of parsnips or of mice and on that note I’ll leave you.

See you next week!

If you are interested in the wonderful world of poisonous and dangerous plants I highly recommend Amy Stewarts book “Wicked Plants”. It is such a readable and entertaining book.

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