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Water hemlock is poisonous. But that doesn’t mean you have to remove it from your yard

In World
June 15, 2024

Last week I received a call from a lady who had a weed growing in her backyard that she couldn’t identify. Her neighbors had told her it was dangerous and that she should burn it. She wanted to check in with Extension before she did anything.

I wanted to see for myself what it was. I had a guess after she told me it had white flower clusters and she lived on the river. I drove over to the Lakeshore area where her backyard was waterfront. The view was beautiful, and I watched a bald eagle soar overhead as I walked the property. Then I saw the pretty white flower clusters sticking out over the assorted grasses and forbes that made up her yard. I was afraid she might have a stand of water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) but I was still unsure. I looked closer and saw that the stems had purple streaks and the leaves were alternately placed along the stem. I had brought my gloves and pruners with me to cut into a stem. It was hollow inside. That’s when I knew it was water hemlock.

What is the most poisonous part of water hemlock?

Water hemlock is one of the deadliest plants in the world. It is a cousin to the poison hemlock that did in Socrates. All parts of the plant are toxic and contain a chemical called cicutoxin. Within 30-60 minutes of ingestion, a person will experience nausea, vomiting, tremors, cramps and convulsions. The most poisonous part of the plant is the root. In 1992, a 23-year-old man and his brother were out foraging for wild ginseng root in Maine. He collected and ate 3 bites of water hemlock root by mistake. Despite emergency services arriving within 30 minutes and having aggressive treatment at a hospital, he succumbed within three hours. The older brother, who had only taken one bite, was treated and survived.

What other plants look like water hemlock?

According to data from the CDC, from 1979 through 1988, at least 58 people died after ingesting a misidentified poisonous plant. There are a few plants that look a lot like water hemlock. One is Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). This plant is in the carrot family and grows as a wildflower though it is not native to the United States. All parts of the plant are edible, whether cooked or raw. Flower clusters can be fried and have a carrot-like flavor. The stems are hairy, and the flower clusters have a dark purple bloom in the center.

Another look-alike is elderberry. People often collect the fruit for use in pies and jams. It also grows on lake and pond shores and has white flower clusters. However, the inside of the stem is pithy and the leaves are arranged opposite each other along the stem.

Where is water hemlock found?

I contacted a weed scientist and a botanist at the University of Florida to help me advise the lady. The weed scientist told me that complete eradication of this plant was going to be near impossible and the strategy could be to simply leave it alone. The plant is not harmful unless a person or animal eats it. The botanist agreed and noted that water hemlock is native to Florida and was growing by the river in its natural habitat.

It serves as a host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly and provides nectar for numerous pollinators. It is true, as I walked along the stand of hemlock, I couldn’t help but notice lots of bee activity and I did see caterpillars on one of the plants. My client has a dog, but she has been walking the dog on a leash in the front yard away from the plants. While there are numerous reports of people and livestock being poisoned by water hemlock, there have been no reported cases with dogs. I reassured my client that it was not like poison ivy and that touching it could not hurt you. To try to keep it from spreading, you can mow the affected area very close to the ground. Repeated mowings will reduce the plant’s ability to compete with other plants in the area. Spot treatments of herbicides can also be applied to keep the plant in check. Systemic herbicides that go through all plant parts such as glyphosate or 2,4-D works best when applied in late spring and early summer. Plants growing in wet or submerged areas need to be treated with an herbicide specifically labeled for use in aquatic areas, if treatment is even needed.

Our native water hemlock provides nectar for pollinators and food for butterfly caterpillars. It poses no risk to people or pets as long as it is not eaten. Florida has many other plants that are commonly grown on purpose in our landscape that are also very toxic. Sago palm, oleander, and angel trumpet are the three top of mind. So, you can love and co-exist with a toxic plant when caution is taken.

Tonya Ashworth is an extension agent and environmental horticulture and Master Gardener coordinator with UF/IFAS in Duval County. 

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Water hemlock is poisonous. Here’s what you should know about it

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