Poison hemlock has a pretty scary reputation for being toxic. And, with news pouring in that the plant is currently in bloom across several parts of the country, it’s understandable that you might be a little-or a lot-nervous about coming into contact with it.
But being aware that you should avoid poison hemlock and actually knowing what the toxic plant looks like are two totally different things. Here’s what you need to know, plus whether its rep as being the “deadliest plant in America” is actually legit.
OK, what is poison hemlock?
Poison hemlock is a toxic plant, and all parts of the plant-the leaves, stem, fruit, and root-are poisonous, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Poison hemlock has white flowers that grow in small clusters, and each flower eventually develops into a green, deeply ridged fruit that contains seeds. After the fruit ripens and matures, it turns a grayish brown color. Poison hemlock has a hollow stem with small purple spots, delicate leaves like parsley, and a white root (it’s in the same family as parsnips and wild carrots).
Poison hemlock is in almost every state in the US, and per the USDA, it tends to grow along fence lines, in irrigation ditches, and in other moist places. It can also get up to three meters tall.
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Is poison hemlock actually poisonous to humans?
Unfortunately, yes. The plant has a few toxic compounds, including coniine, g-coniceine, and piperidine alkaloids.
The biggest issue with poison hemlock is people accidentally eating it, Sarah Shafer, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health. “People get poisoned because they mistake it for a wild parsley or wild carrots,” she says. Some people may even “pick it out of their garden and put it in a salad,” thinking that it was something they had grown, Dr. Shafer says. Sound terrifying? Yep. “It’s scary,” Dr. Schafer says.
Children have also died after making whistles from hollow stems of poison hemlock, the USDA says.
People generally assume that you’ll get a rash or blisters from handling poison hemlock, but that’s (mostly) a myth, says Jason Rizzo, MD, a dermatologist at University at Buffalo. “It’s a common misconception that poison hemlock sap will cause rashes and blisters,” he says. “It’s not like poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak.”
There is a caveat, though: If you have a cut or happen to expose one of your mucus membranes (like your eyes or nose) to poison hemlock, the toxins in the plant could get into your bloodstream and make you sick, he says. (King County, Washington, health officials specifically warn of a case of one woman who had a “severe reaction” to poison hemlock after pulling plants on a hot day.)
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Signs you’ve come into contact with poison hemlock
If you accidentally brush up against poison hemlock while you’re hiking or hanging outside, you should be OK (remember: the whole rash thing is a myth). But if you accidentally eat it or it gets in your body, Dr. Shafer says you’ll notice a few symptoms, including:
- Feeling lightheaded
- Dilated pupils
“People usually come in feeling unwell,” Dr. Shafer says. Poison hemlock can cause muscle paralysis and death from respiratory failure, so this is not something you want to mess with.
If you’re sharing a meal and people start to have symptoms of hemlock poisoning “everyone should go to the ER to get checked out,” Dr. Shafer says. That homegrown “carrot” you ate could actually be poison hemlock, she points out.
There’s no direct antidote for hemlock poisoning, but Dr. Shafer says that people are “closely monitored” after being poisoned. “If they develop paralysis, they may need to be put on a ventilator for a few days,” she says.
How well someone recovers from hemlock poisoning depends on how healthy they were to begin with, Dr. Shafer says.
So, if you happen to see poison hemlock near you, it’s really best to head the other way.
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