The Apiaceae family, formerly Umbellifers, also known as the carrot family, is the one that scares me the most. The simple reason is that whilst there are many edible species in the family, there are also a few deadly ones; And the worst part is that they look very similar. Hemlock, deadly, not only looks very similar to Cow Parsley, for example, but also grows right in the same spot! I mean, really!
Anyway, since my last outing, I’m feeling a lot more confident. The main reason is that whilst I’m still not 100% sure about positively identifying the edibles, I’m now 100% confident to identify Hemlock itself.
How did I get there? Following the advice of my peers, and using multiple points of reference. As you can see from the picture above, looking at the leaves can narrow it down to maybe 5 of the Apiaceaes, but that’s not enough.
Warning – Please, please, please don’t take this as a definitive source. You really must be 100% sure for yourself, or you’re playing Russian roulette with herbs.
The first clue that clinched it for me, was the purple spotting. Hemlock sometimes has purple spotting on the stems, like the photo below. Cow Parsley can also have purple on the stems, but with Cow Parsley the purple is like a wash of colour. On Hemlock it’s like someone flicked a purple ink-pen at it.
The second clue, was the cross-section and shape of the stems. Hemlock has a circular, hairless stem, which is hollow. Cow Parsley has a ridged stem (similar to celery), minute hairs, and has much thicker walls to the hollow stem.
The leaf stems are a little different. Hemlock leaf stems are also circular and hollow, whereas Cow Parsley leaf stems are solid and a ‘V’ shape; Or, I prefer to think of it as 3 sided, where one of those sides has a groove in it to channel rain water.
The final thing that clinched it for me, was the smell. Cow Parsley smells like, well, Parsley. It’s generally considered that Hemlock has a really unappealing smell. When I first smelt it, I thought it was actually quite nice – If I smelt that as a men’s cologne, I’d be quite happy with it, but hold on; Would I want to put it in my mouth smelling like that? Oh god, no! That would be awful. There we go then.
Of course, now that I have a 100% positive identification, I can look back at the plant and think about what else I notice. For example, compared to Cow Parsley, it’s quite a dark glossy green (NOTE: Plants’ colour can vary regionally as well as with age). The leaves’ “toothing” continues right to the end, whereas in Cow Parsley, the notches become less prominent toward the end. Also, I think that where the veins in the leaves cause an indentation and fold on the top of the leaf, it seems to be more pronounced in Hemlock.
It’s all about familiarity and confidence. I’ll be taking the time to smell and look at Hemlock every time I come across it, so recognising it becomes second nature. If you’re into foraging, I recommend you do the same, and never forget “If in doubt, leave it out”.
And scary with good reason. I didn’t pick Cow Parsley as a comparison by random. They grow together and look similar. If you were in any doubt about just how poisonous Hemlock could be, lets start with the fact that there’s no cure for Hemlock poisoning. The poison causes muscle weakness, then paralysis from your toes upwards. Eventually, paralysis of the lungs and/or heart causes death.
Scared? You should be. I’m not scared now that I’m confident that I could easily identify Hemlock, but I will remain wary forever. I hope that you will too, and stay safe.