Socrate’s last cuppa.
(Click on image to enlarge)
Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was sentenced to death in 399 BC and ordered to commit suicide by drinking a hemlock infusion. This deadly plant still lives along our road verges and waterways over 2000 years later.
There are stands of nine feet tall hemlock plants on the marsh; they have benefited from high rainfall over the last couple of months. I find their musky smell quite appealing, but it’s best not to get to up-close with these very poisonous plants. Generally, cattle find hemlock unpalatable, but the ingestion a couple of pounds can kill a cow. Although the roots contain most of the poison, all parts of the plant are deadly. There isn’t an antidote to the poison, either. If you are unlucky enough to have a few hemlock leaves in your salad, you will quickly become aware of an increasing numbness in your mouth, and you are not going to be very well for a while. Within a few hours of ingestion, the alkaloids produce a potentially fatal neuromuscular blockage when the respiratory muscles are affected. In other words, you die of suffocation. If you survive the poisoning, you will soon return to your normal happy self; although, I guess you will be giving the plant a wide berth in the future.
One particular lanky stand of hemlock is growing over a section of pathway, close to the south gate of the tenant farmer’s field. Instead of around the hemlock, a pathway has been driven straight through the middle of it. This is not a good idea because the sap will cause nasty rashes and blistering if it gets on your skin.
I often wonder if people are generally aware that hemlock plants are common and grow readily in our spring and summer countryside. It grows in large stands and as single plants. It is often found growing amongst hogweed. I wonder, also, how many people are able to identify the plant when they see it. By far the more familiar species is Conium maculatum. It’s a herbaceous biennial plant which grows between 1.5–2.5 metres (5–8 ft) tall, with a smooth green stem, usually with red or purple spots along the stem. The leaves are finely divided and lacy, overall triangular in shape, up to 50 centimetres (20 in) long and 40 centimetres (16 in) wide. The flowers are small, white, clustered in umbels up to 10–15 centimetres (4–6 in) across. When crushed, the leaves and root emit a rank, unpleasant odour often compared to that of parsnips.
When I was a young inexperienced lad, I made peashooters and whistles from hollow plant stems. I don’t remember being told about the dangers of ingesting hemlock! Somehow I managed to avoid poisoning myself? Maybe we have an in-built genetic mechanism that helps us avoid poisonous plants.
As with hemlock, hogweed is a member of the umbelifer family and its sap causes severe blisters, scarring or even blindness. This family has some of the most poisonous and deadly plant species found in Britain.
The moral of this story is don’t eat hemlock or hogweed; the after effects are very unpleasant. Avoid the sap at all costs, and don’t dance amongst these poisonous plants wearing shorts and a T shirt. My advice is: survive and prosper! Give hemlock and hogweed a wide berth. I thank you if you have managed to read this far.