Hemlock - Britain's Most Common "Witchy" Plant
(Published at Lughnasa 2000)
Of all the plants traditionally associated with European witchcraft, the one you are most likely to come across in Britain is hemlock, or Conium maculatum to give it its botanical name. It is also likely that you will have passed by without giving it a second glance, which is not surprising because unless you know what to look for, the distinctive features which differentiate this from the rest of the vast family of Umbelliferae, it will not look significantly different from the hedge parsley, cow parsley and other more familiar members of the family you probably don’t take much notice of either.
Description and habitat
Let us start, then, with a description of what you need to look for. Hemlock can grow to be as much as 6 to 10 ft tall, although more usually it is 3 to 5 feet tall. Like all members of the Umbellferae, its white flowerheads resemble those of parsnips, carrots, angelica and water hemlock, while the bright green leaves are deeply-cut, even feathery and delicate. It has a fleshy, white taproot. All plant parts are poisonous, with the seeds containing the highest concentration of poison. The conium alkaloids are volatile and can even cause toxic reactions when inhaled.
It takes the descriptor maculatum from its most distinctive feature - a deep or dark red, almost port-wine coloured, mottling on the lower half of the stem. This varies somewhat from a regular, neatly spotted effect to one which can leave the lowest part almost entirely red, gradually becoming more “spotty” further up. In any event, the mottling generally disappears about half way up the stem. The stem is perfectly smooth, unlike most of the other umbelliferae, which have vertically ribbed stems. It has a disagreeable “mouse-piss” smell which hangs around the plants on a hot day and is extremely pronounced when the leaves are crushed between the hands. These pointers, along with the unusual delicacy of the leaves, are the ones which will allow you to tell hemlock apart from its cousins.
Culpepper comments that “It grows in all counties of this land, by walls and hedgesides, in wastegrounds and untilled places.” Oliver Rackham, however, writing in “The History of the Countryside” says that it grows profusely in disturbed ground, especially along the edges of new roads and around building sites.
At first glance, it appears that they cannot both be right. However, wild (and even some cultivated) plants are extremely adaptable and will try their luck in any seemingly promising habitat given the opportunity. Take rosebay willowherb, for instance, and the buddelia. Both were fairly restricted in their habitats, clearings in woodland and suburban gardens respectively, until given a lucky break which they exploited with alacrity. With the willowherb, it was the considerable ground disturbance during the construction of the railways and the corridors provided by completed railway lines which give it a passage to the wider world; in the case of the buddelia it was the sudden appearance of large areas of derelict land in urban areas due to extensive bombing of British cities during the war. The road building programme of the second half of the 20th century perhaps gave hemlock a similar boost.
In any event, it is along roads that you will most readily find it today. It grows profusely, for example, in the central reservation of the A435 between Redditch and J3 of the M42, and on a small bank close to houses barely 400 yards from Dragon Manor. Once you have a mental image of its shape, you will find that you can spot it readily and accurately with just a quick glance.
Although native to Europe, at some point hemlock crossed the Pond and it is now widely distributed across the United States, especially in the Northern states where it is particularly common along roadsides, hiking trails, ditches and field borders.
Folklore and myth
Surprisingly, there appears to be little folklore or traditional belief associated with this plant other than its reputation for being used by European witches. In France, during the 19th century and presumably earlier, the related and even more toxic water hemlock (Œnanthe crocata) was used to poison moles, according to Dyer. It is in fact quite difficult to imagine what use a witch or anyone else could put the plant to. Unlike the other traditionally “witchy” plants, hemlock does not have any significant effect on the consciousness of the user. Whereas belladonna, mandrake and henbane all have pronounced effects on the consciousness of the user, providing hallucinations and altered perception and trance states to a greater or lesser extent, the action of the alkaloid in hemlock, coniine, is almost entirely on the physical nervous system; thus a person who has consumed a lethal amount of the plant will suffer a progressive collapse of the respiratory system while the brain and the rational faculties remain unaffected and alert up to the time of death.
In Britain, it has generally claimed its victims by accidental poisoning, most typically when it has been misidentified and its leaves mistaken for those of more innocuous members of the family such as wild parsley or its roots eaten in place of wild parsnip.
There is also a long history of children being poisoned by the plant when they have made whistles from the hollow stems, and Mrs Grieve indicates that such accidents were not uncommon as recently as the 1920s in the UK. Which brings me to speculate whether the original Pan pipes, said in Greek mythology to have been played by the Wilderness God, Pan, and to have denoted his proximity, and subsequently adopted and played by the shepherds of the Greek mountains and forests, may not have been specifically made from the stems of the hemlock.
The name of the principle alkaloid in the plant, coniine, derives from a Greek word meaning “spin” or “whirl” because hemlock produced a form of vertigo, indeed a madness, in those who consumed it. If children have been lethally poisoned by a whistle made from a single stem, can we doubt that a set of pan-pipes would have had sufficient of the alkaloid in them to have produced at least a very marked effect on an adult user? If so, we might imagine that the playing of such pipes would truly summon Pan, the bringer of madness and terror, to the pan-piper sitting and playing in a lonely glade deep in a forest in the stillness of the noontide. We might, in particular, imagine the slow progression of a paralysis in the extremities, beginning with the fingers and toes and slowly spreading up the limbs until the player was almost unable to move, but was fixed, helpless, in the place where he sat; providing he did not take a lethal dose of the poison in his playing, the paralysis would eventually pass and he would reclaim control of his body. But in those hours of motionlessness, of helplessness in the remote forests and mountainous places, did the player feel the touch of Pan, of panic, sweep over him in the very knowledge of that helplessness and surrender to the God and his wild things?
Hemlock’s most famous victim was, of course, the Greek philosopher Socrates who was ordered by the authorities in Athens to do away with himself for daring to ask awkward philosophical and ethical questions and thereby corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. Hemlock was commonly used in Greece for executing the condemned, though whether out of mercy in that the degree of physical distress to the criminal was less than with other toxins, or perhaps precisely because it does leave the mind clear until death intervenes, thus allowing the dying person plenty of time to reflect on his crimes and to kick himself for getting caught, is uncertain.
"The little hemlock is sister to the great hemlock", ie "The little sin is sister to the great sin”, says a Manx proverb, while there was until fairly recently a traditional English belief that the dark red markings on the stem represent the brand put on Cain's brow after he had murdered his brother Abel. Mrs Grieve quotes Lewis Spence as follows: "The Scottish fairies were equipped with bows fashioned from the rib of a man buried where three lairds' lands met, and were tipped with gold. Quivers were made with the sloughed skin of the adder, and the arrows they held had for shafts the stems of the bog-reed, and were pointed with white field flint and dipped in the dew of hemlock". Which probably explains why faeries are seen so seldom - they’re probably too busy looking for all of this stuff to have much time for humans.
Medical uses of hemlock
Hemlock has had only a limited use in medicine. The Anglo-Saxons used it in their medicine, and is mentioned as early as the tenth century in Old English medical texts. The modern English name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words hem (border, shore) and leác (leek or plant). Another authority derives the British name 'hemlock' from the Anglo-Saxon word healm (straw), from which the word 'haulm' is derived.
Conium is sedative and antispasmodic, and in sufficient doses acts as a paralyser to the centres of motion (as described above). In its action it is, therefore, directly antagonistic to that of strychnine, and hence it has been recommended as an antidote to strychnine poisoning, and in other poisons of the same class, as well as in diseases such as tetanus and rabies where powerful muscular spasms are a feature of the disease, and it has also been used as an inhaled treatment for asthma. Mrs Grieve comments that during the middle ages, hemlock was mixed with betony and fennel seed and considered a cure for the bite of a mad dog. It has also, in the past at least, been used as a treatment for neuralgia and rheumatism, although its use in medicine gradually declined due to the difficulty of preparing and administering reliable dosages of the alkaloid. Indeed, a few drops of the pale, watery juice are usually sufficient to kill a small mammal.
Hemlock was formerly believed to be effective in the treatment of scrofulous disorders. Both the Greek and Arabian physicians were in the practice of using it for the cure of indolent tumours, swellings and pains of the joints, as well as for skin problems.
What, then, can we say in conclusion about hemlock? Almost that it is famous (or notorious) for being famous (or notorious). A herbal Spice Girl, perhaps. Certainly the traditional lore about it is much sparser than we might have imagined, and that in itself is a curiosity. But look out for it near where you live next summer. You never know when you may need to dispose of a noisy neighbour or an unwanted spouse.
Culpepper, Nicholas - A Complete Herbal (Wordsworth Reference, Ware, 1995)
Dyer, T F Thiselton - Folk-Lore of Plants (Llanerch, Lampeter, 1994)
Mrs Grieve - A Modern Herbal (Tiger Books International, London, 1992)
Rackham, Oliver - The History of the Countryside (Dent, date unknown)