Botanists consider water hemlock the most poisonous plant in North America. Just a bite of the root will kill a human.
Both water and poison hemlock grow in Alaska, and both are deadly poisonous. Both species inhabit wet areas such as marshes, streams, and moist meadows. Water hemlock grows to a height of two to six feet, and poison hemlock reaches three to eight feet in height. Water hemlock has alternate, compound, oval leaflets with saw-toothed margins. The leaves of poison hemlock are lance-shaped with saw-toothed edges. Both species have small, lacy, white flowers arranged in umbrella-like clusters. The stems of the plants are hollow. The roots are tuberous and chambered and contain a yellow, oily, foul-smelling liquid.
The yellow, oily substance found in the roots is circutoxin, and it is present in all parts of the plant. When ingested, circutoxin depresses the respiratory system. Symptoms begin to appear within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and include salivation followed by diarrhea, severe stomach distress, and convulsions. Without treatment, death occurs within eight hours of ingestion, and even if a person survives hemlock poisoning, she may suffer permanent damage to her central nervous system.
Hemlock poisonings in children are often caused when kids use the hollow stem of the plant to make whistles or use the stems as pea shooters. Adults are sometimes poisoned when they mistake the roots of hemlock as wild parsnip or add the leaves of the deadly plant to a pot herb mixture. Poisoning has also occurred when campers have mistaken the leaves of water hemlock as some sort of wild marijuana and have smoked them. Livestock can be poisoned by hemlock when grazing the plants or drinking water near where the plants grow. A poisoned animal may die in as little as fifteen minutes.
In Maine, on October 5th, 1992, a 23-year old man and his 39-year old brother were foraging for wild ginseng, when the younger man collected several plants growing in a swampy area and took three bites from the root of one of the plants. His older brother took one bite of the same root. Within 30 minutes, the younger man began to vomit and suffer convulsions. It took 30 minutes for the brothers to walk out of the woods and call for help. Emergency personnel arrived within 15 minutes, and by that time, the younger brother was unresponsive and cyanotic with profuse salivation and intermittent seizures. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite medical intervention, he died three hours after ingesting the root. The older brother appeared normal when he reached the emergency room, but he began to have seizures and suffer delirium two hours after eating the root. He was eventually stabilized and survived the poisoning.
The suicide of Socrates in 399 BC is the most famous case of hemlock poisoning. Socrates was accused and found guilty of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and for “corrupting the youth.” He was sentenced to death and ordered to drink a cup of poison hemlock. Socrates was his own executioner. According to the story, Socrates cheerfully drank the poison, and surrounded by his students; he paced the room while he lectured to them. When he could no longer stand, he sat and soon died.
Nature is beautiful but sometimes deadly. Most of us don’t walk around the woods picking and nibbling on plant roots, but it is surprising to learn some plants are not even safe to touch. Here on Kodiak, I try not to touch cow parsnip or nettles because the first will cause a burn on my skin and the second will cause instant pain followed by hours of tingling, but I remind myself I could die from touching monkshood or hemlock. The toxicity of monkshood and hemlock make them wonderful weapons for a mystery writer.
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