Poison hemlock is quite widespread, and it is worth knowing how to distinguish it from other plants belonging to the same botanical family, Umbelliferae, to which it is similar: European angelica, parsley, celery, and even wild cherry.
Poison Hemlock Scientific Facts
- Scientific synonyms: Cicuta Officinalis Crantz. Cicuta major Lam.
- Other names: Poison parsley, cicuta, hemlock, poison root, poison snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley, winter fern, water parsley.
- French: Cigue, grande cigue.
- Spanish: Cicuta, perejil lobuno.
- Environment: It grows wild all over Europe and America, usually in cool and wet places, riverbanks, and roadsides.
- Description: It is an herbaceous plant that grows from 30 to 150 cm high. It belongs to the Umbelliferae family. Its stem is hollow and finely stretch-marked.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: Fruits.
Healing Properties and Uses
All parts of poison hemlock, especially its fruits, contain diverse alkaloids (coniine, coniceine, and pseudoconhydrine), besides an essential oil, and flavonoid and coumarinic glycosides. Coniine is the most crucial active component of poison hemlock, being present in a proportion of two percent in its fruit and 0.5% in its leaves. Coniine is absorbed both orally and through the skin, which it penetrates pretty quickly.
Alkaloids are vegetal substances with an alkaline reaction. They have complex molecules and are formed by carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Their pharmacological effects are pretty strong; thus, in small doses, they may already produce toxic effects. In therapeutic doses, coniine and the other alkaloids of poison hemlock have a strong sedative, anesthetic, and local analgesic effect. Hemlock has been used successfully to ease:
- Incurable pains such as those produced by cancer.
- Persistent pain, such as that produced by neuralgia.
At present, though we can use other robust and secure analgesic substances, hemlock may still be used; however, it must always be under medical supervision and with strict observance of doses to avoid toxic effects.
How to Identify Poison Hemlock
The appearance of the poisonous hemlock plant is similar to that of other plants of its botanical family, such as celery or parsley. The following botanical details will help identify it:
- The hemlock stem differs from the stem of other Umbelliferae plants in that it possesses some reddish or purple stains on its lower part.
- The leaves are big and bright and finely divided.
- The flowers are white, grouped in unequal umbrellas with 10 to 20 radii each.
- Its fruit is oval, about 3 mm in size, with an ochre-greenish color, and crossed by foldings.
- The whole plant exudes a urine-like aroma, which is quite unpleasant.
Coniine is similar, both in its chemical structure and in its effect, to another alkaloid found in tobacco plants: nicotine. Both alkaloids act on the autonomic nervous system, first exciting it and then depressing it. From half to two hours after intake of a toxic dose of coniine, there will be a burning sensation in the mouth, swallowing difficulties, nausea, pupil dilation, and weakness in the legs. If the dose is higher, it will produce muscular paralysis (like that produced by curare) and death due to respiratory failure and asphyxia. Notwithstanding, the victim is conscious, and mental control is maintained until the final moment. This explains why the Greeks chose this poison to kill prisoners sentenced to capital punishment.
Treatment of the intoxication. When there is a suspicion that someone has taken poison hemlock, vomiting must be induced, and, if possible, an immediate gastric lavage must be carried out. Give purgatives and charcoal, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the poisoned person has difficulty breathing. The victim must quickly be taken to a hospital.
Minor or water hemlock also called spotted cowbane and European water hemlock, grows in wet places, like poison hemlock, though it is less frequently found than the latter. The appearance of water hemlock is similar to that of poison hemlock. Violent convulsions and ultimate respiratory failure define its toxic effects. Follow the same treatment as that for hemlock poisoning.
How to use Poison Hemlock
- Powder. The dried fruits of this plant are crushed into a powder that is dissolved in water. The maximum tolerated dose is one gram of fruit daily, distributed into four daily intakes of 0.25 g each.
- Lotions. It is prepared with one gram of crushed fruits for every nine grams of oily dissolvent. It is used as a local anesthetic in cases of neuralgias and intense pain. Always bear in mind that coniine is absorbed through the skin.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. Vols. 1 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 155, 156. Print.