Hemlock (botanical name, Conium maculatum) belongs to the Apiaceae family. It may be noted that the hemlock belongs to the great order Umbelliferae - the plant family which also includes carrot, parsley, fennel and parsnip.
Hemlock is basically a tall plant akin to cow parsley and wild chervil that grows up to a height of two meters (6 feet) from a split and light yellowish root. When the plant grows in sheltered conditions, it may even grow to double its normal height. The plant has a strong and vivid green stem which is even and marked with purple or profound reddish blotches. The leaves of hemlock are deep green, feather-like and emerge in groups of three. When crushed or bruised, the leaves of hemlock emit a disagreeable and unappeasable odor. The plant bears petite white umbrella-shaped cluster of flowers that are lacy. These flowers give rise to fruits or seeds that are akin to caraway. The plants bears small fruits, approximately one-eighth of an inch in length, are broad, creased and compacted sideways, but otherwise having a smooth surface.
During the first year of the plant's growth, it produces abundant leaves and the leaves at the base of the plant are extremely large, sometime growing up to two feet in length. The leaves of hemlock appear alternately, have extended stalks, and are tripinnate - split along the midrib into opposed pairs of leaflets. These leaflets are further divided and sub-divided in the same way. On the other hand, leaves growing on the upper parts of the plant are comparatively smaller and almost without any stalk. However, they have short expanded footstalk that clasp to the stem, generally appearing opposite to each other or in groups of three. These leaves are oblong-shaped, dipinnate or pinnate (having leaflets positioned on every side of a common stalk), somewhat smooth, having a pale green hue with jagged edges and every tooth tipped with a miniscule, prickly white point.
The umbels (a cluster of flowers wherein some flower stalks or pedicels, almost equivalent in length, extend from a common center) are somewhat small, around 1 ¼ to 2 inches in width, plentiful, appearing in the terminals on somewhat short flower stalks having around 12 to 16 rays to the umbel. There are around four to eight lance-shaped, bent down specialized leaf-like parts at the base of the primary umbel, while there are three to four extending bractlets at the base of the smaller umbels. The flowers of hemlock are petite, having white petals with a point that is bent down towards the stem. The stamens of the flowers are just a little longer compared to the petals and have white anthers.
In effect, the whole hemlock plant is bitter to taste and it has an unpleasant mousy smell that is particularly obvious when the leaves or other parts of the plants are crushed. Even when the plant is dehydrated, the smell is offensive, but not as much distinct as in the fresh plant. The fruits as well as the seeds of hemlock too have a very distinct smell and flavour. When the fruits and seeds are wiped with a potassium bi-carbonate solution, they emit the same unpleasant mousy smell.
Like the plant's odour and taste, even the poisonous property of hemlock is prevalent in all its parts. However, it is said that the poisonous property is comparatively less in roots of the plant. People have suffered hemlock poisoning for consuming its leaves mistaking them to be those of parsley, the roots for parsnip as well as eating the hemlock seeds mistaking them to be anise seeds. In addition, numerous children too have suffered hemlock poisoning when they made whistles using the hollow stems of the plant, which ought to be completely removed from the pastures and meadows, as domestic animals also have died following consumption of the hemlock stems and leaves. However, it is surprising to note that goats are able to consume the plant's leaves and stems without experiencing any unpleasant effect.
As mentioned earlier, hemlock belongs to the great order Umbelliferae, similar to all umbelliferous plants, hemlock or Conium are also plentiful in a watery juice (acrid), which is essentially narcotic in its consequences on the animal frame. Therefore, when hemlock is administered appropriately in tiny doses, it is definitely a very valuable medication. All parts of the hemlock plant, particularly the fresh leaves and fruits, enclose an unstable, oil-like fluid alkaloid - an extremely poisonous substance. Using even a few drops of this volatile alkaloid may prove to be fatal for small animals.
People in the ancient times were acquainted with the plant as well as its properties. One can find reference of hemlock in Greek literature during its early days, where the poisonous properties of the plant had been recognized. In effect, in those days, authorities often administered the poisonous juice extracted from the hemlock leaves to criminals. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that hemlock juice was also given to Socrates resulting in his death.
The original name of hemlock in Roman was cicuta, mention of which can be found in the Latin literature of the mediaeval period. However, the name was first applied by the Swiss physician and naturalist Conrad Gesner in 1541 and others to a different species of the umbelliferous family called the Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa). Incidentally, the Water Hemlock or Cicuta virosa is not found either in Greece or the southern regions of Europe. With a view to steer clear of the perplexity occurring from the similar name for these somewhat dissimilar plants, in 1737, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus reinstated the traditional Greek name of the plant and called it Hemlock (Conium maculatum) - the generic name (Conium) of the plant which has been derived from Greek term Konas, which denotes ‘to whirl about'. The plant was especially given this name because when it was consumed, people experienced vertigo and eventual death.
The specific name of the plant ‘maculatum' is a Latin term denoting ‘spotted' and mentions about the markings on the stem of the plant. If an ancient English legend is to be believed, the purple stripes on the stems of the hemlock plant manifests the brand that was placed on Cain's brow subsequent to his committing a murder. The plant is also considered to be ‘sinister' since it was considered to be a preferred plant of the witches who collected it for their poisonous brews. It is interesting to note, that in German and Russian legends, hemlock was also known as the devil's plant.
In contemporary medicine, hemlock is used mainly according to the suggestion of Vienna's Storch. Hemlock was widely used as a medicine since 1760, but, over the years, its use as well as reputation has declined primarily due to the unsure and vague actions of the preparations from the plant.
The poisonous nature and the extremely unpleasant odour of this plant notwithstanding, hemlock was employed for medicinal purpose for the first time by the Greek and Arabian practitioners of herbal medicine. Ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides recommended external application of this herb to treat herpes. In addition, there was a time when a poultice prepared with the leaves of the plant was also applied topically to treat tumours. It was believed that the poisonous properties of this herb were dispersed when the plant was cut and dehydrated. In effect, the 17th century English botanist, naturalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper suggested that the root of the hemlock plant be roasted and covered on the affected areas to alleviate the soreness and swelling caused by gout. During the latter part of the 18th century, several researches were undertaken with hemlock as a medicine and the herb was still administered to ulcers as well as swellings caused by cancerous growths.
During the early part of the current century, North American, British and Indian Pharmacopeias listed hemlock as a tranquilizer and anti-spasmodic (anti-seizure) medicine and it was often prescribed to treat epilepsy as well as other spasmodic ailments. In addition, hemlock was also believed to be a useful antidote to poisoning due to strychnine. As discussed earlier, all the parts of the fresh hemlock plant possess extreme poisonous properties.
The leaves and fruit of hemlock plant.
When used as a medication, hemlock is tranquilizing and an anti-spasmodic. However, when it is used in excessive doses, it paralyzes the centers of motion - rendering one immobile. Precisely speaking, the action of hemlock is directly opposed to the actions of strychnine and, therefore, hemlock has been suggested as a remedy for poisoning due to strychnine. It has also been recommended as an antidote for other poisons belonging to the class of Strychnine, in hydrophobia, tetanus and others. During the mediaeval periods, hemlock was blended with betony as well as fennel seeds to prepare a medication to cure mad dog bites.
Owing to the strange sedative action of hemlock on the motor (motion) centers, the juice extracted from the leaves of this plant (Succus conii) is given as a medication to cure cases of unwarranted volatility of the nervous motor, for instance, epilepsy from dentition, teething in children, cramps, in the initial stages of paralysis agitans or shaking paralysis, severe mania, as well as in spasms of the gullet and the larynx and other similar cases. When hemlock is inhaled, it is believed to provide relief from cough in people suffering from asthma, bronchitis, whooping-cough and related ailments.
When hemlock is being used as a medication, it is important to administer it very carefully, since internal use of the drug may result in narcotic poisoning, while any overdose of this medication may cause paralysis. When taken in large or poisonous dosages, hemlock results in total paralysis, with the patient suffering from speech loss. In effect, first of all the respiratory function is slowed down and it eventually stops functioning altogether resulting in death owing to asphyxia (a severe condition caused by absence of oxygen and surfeit of carbon dioxide in the blood resulting in extreme suffocation). Nevertheless, the mind of the patient continues to work or is not affect till the end. The description of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who was poisoned to death with hemlock, says that loss of awareness is one of the major symptoms of hemlock poisoning. However, the main action of hemlock is on the motor system that causes paralysis.
In earlier days, it was thought that hemlock had an alternative impact in scrofulous disorders or major tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, particularly those of the neck. In addition, Greek as well as Arabian medical practitioners generally used hemlock to treat slow developing tumours, swellings as well as joint pains. They also used hemlock to cure skin affections. Among the contemporary physicians, the 18th century Austrian physician Baron Anton von Storch was the first to draw attention of the medical community to use hemlock internally as well as externally for treating cancerous growths and other types of ulcers. He also highlighted the importance of using hemlock as a poultice or ointment, as he had found it to be an extremely important application to ease pain in such cases.
When any individual suffers from hemlock poisoning, they ought to be aware that the antidotes include stimulants plus coffee, tannic acid, emetics of zinc or mustard and castor oil. If required, such patients may even be given artificial respiration. In case of hemlock poisoning, it is crucial to maintain the body temperature.
Similar to several other noxious plants, when the hemlock plant is cut or dehydrated, much of its poisonous property is lost. In fact, the poisonous property of hemlock is not only volatile but can be dispersed easily. It is important to note that cooking the hemlock plant completely destroys its poisonous properties.
In effect, the extremely unpleasant smell of fresh hemlock has actually prevented people from using this fatal plant as a vegetable. Nevertheless, like goats, quails and larks are known to consume hemlock without having any undesirable effects. However, when they eat hemlock, the flesh of these birds is steeped with poison and this makes them poisonous food for humans. While thrushes also consume the hemlock fruits with impunity, ducks are known to have been poisoned by hemlock.
Habitat and cultivation
The hemlock plant is indigenous to the central and southern regions of Europe and very common in the temperate climatic regions. Hemlock may be found growing naturally on stream banks, in moist hedgerows, on waste land and even on damp and rough pastures. The plant is very common in such places.
The most important element enclosed by the hemlock leaves is definitely the alkaloid coniine. If harvested at the appropriate time, the hemlock leaves contain alkaloid coniine to the extent of 2.77 per cent, while the average yield of this substance at other times is around 1.65 per cent. In its pure form, coniine is a volatile/ unsteady, monochrome, oily fluid. Coniine not only possesses poisonous properties, but also has a very bitter flavour. Its scent is extremely unpleasant, piercing and akin to that of a rodent.
In addition to coniine, the hemlock leaves also contain conhydrine, methyl-coniine, ethyl piperidine, pseudoconhydrine, mucilage, unchanging oil as well as 12 per cent of ash. Although the fruits of hemlock too enclose the same chemical substances, compared to the leaves, they are richer in coniine content.