Tag Archives: Royal Horticultural Society

Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

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The wild flowers are blooming

A combination of the recent rains and the rising temperatures we’re getting now is creating ideal conditions for wild flowers. Any piece of uncultivated land is starting to bursting forth with flora which in turn is providing food and cover for flies, bees, beetles, butteflies and a plethora of other insect life. Which is also good for the birds, small mammals and other predators, and so on up the food chain. And on top of that it’s lovely to look at. So here’s a selection of flora currently blossoming in my patch of East Anglia:


Ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea

I like ground ivy because it occurs early in the year, first appearing in March, but like many other phenological phenomena it may now be happening earlier. It creeps across the ground, like ivy, forming carpets of blue flowers and with the green and red leaves it adds lots of colour to the undergrowth. It has numerous names and here are a few from the Royal Horticultural Society website: Devils candlestick, creeping charlie, crows guts, wild snakeroot, hens and chickens, gill-go-by-the- street, and my favourite: ale gill.

Another creeper which grows across the ground and in hedgerows and which has lovely blue flowers is the periwinkle. There are two types of periwinkle, the lesser (Vinca minor) which may have been introduced to the UK and the greater (Vinca major), which was introduced (both according to my wild flower guide).


The greater periwinkle

I’m a tad confused by this flower because they are meant to have 5 petals but this one only has 4. It is also known as creeping myrtle, cut-finger, flower of death (!), grave myrtle, and sorcerer’s violet, among others.

Sprouting next to this periwinkle flower was a nascent white deadnettle, Lamium album. It normally has white flowers which haven’t yet arrived, but the closed buds are visible below the crown. Everything is very green at the moment because of all the rain and looks beautiful against the red wing cases of the ladybird .


White deadnettle about to burst into bloom


Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus

It is thought the greater celandine is named after the swallow (‘khelidon’ is Greek for swallow) and it’s a member of the poppy family. When the stems are broken they ooze a latex sap which is as yellow as the flowers, and the colour can be as deep as orange. It contains a host of alkaloids which confer therapeutic properties but it can also be toxic. It is also known as cocks foot, sight wort and wart wort as the sap has been applied as a treatment for warts. I’m not sure where ‘sight wort‘ comes from, but if it burns off warts I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my eyes!


Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestris

As far as I know cow parsley doesn’t have medicinal properties and according to Wiki it’s not pleasant to eat. But I think the flowers are lovely and they bring back childhood memories of running through the woods in springtime when the cow parsley or ‘keck‘, as it was referred to by my Dad, was as tall as me. There’s nothing quite like a forest floor which is full of cow parsley, in it’s own way it’s as iconic as blue bells. It’s also known as wild chervil and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Beefly – Bombylius major

At the end of my flower finding mission I was looking for a ground ivy flower head and I found this little beauty, and just as I was just about to open the shutter a beefly zoomed in to sip the nectar. Flower pictures can benefit from some insect action and I like beeflies, so this was a highly serendipitous encounter!

Erratum: Maggie from http://www.intouchwithnature.co.uk‘ has pointed out that the last flower with the beefly on is in fact red deadnettle  – not ground ivy. So a big thankyou to Maggie for keeping me honest with my plant identification 🙂