Getting confident with the Apiaceae family, Hemlock – Conium maculatum

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!

Can you identify which Apiaceaes are in this picture?

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.

Hemlock Identification

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.

Colouring

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.

Cross-sections

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.

Smell

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.

Retrospective learnings

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”.

Scary Warning

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.

Forage close to home

Strictly speaking, this post isn’t about foraging as such, more like plant identification. The key point is this: You need to be able to positively identify plants in order to be able to forage for them. However, if you don’t live near the great outdoors, you can practice your plant ID anyway.

For example, just around the corner from my house is a small patch of ground in front of some houses. It’s not owned by any of the householders, and the local council probably can’t justify looking after it; So it’s left to get overgrown for a few years, then stripped back to almost bare earth. The following spring is a great time to go looking, as all the low growing ‘weeds’ get a chance to sprout.

Roadside plant identification (forage)

I wouldn’t forage from this spot because it’s too close to a busy road and a residential parking area, and therefore likely to be polluted.

What can I see here, that I could forage elsewhere?

Well, quite a lot as it happens. Good thing too really, or this whole post would have been pointless!

Firstly, there’s one of my favourites:

Crow Garlic. A great addition as a salad leaf and a garlicky flavour for soups and stews.

Then Burdock. The young, first-year leaves can be eaten, but will be quite bitter, the flower stem can be steamed, and the roots have been used for many types of drinks, not to mention all of the traditional medicinal uses.

Cleavers: The young leaves can be used in salads, the dried seed balls can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and the juice has been used in traditional medicine.

Common Mallow: The leaves and young shoots can be eaten raw and cooked as greens. The leaves are mucilaginous, which means that they thicken soups and stews nicely, the immature seeds are also edible raw, but so small as to not be worth the effort.

Dandelions are just starting to become prolific again, with those bright yellow flower heads popping up everywhere; Every part of the plant is edible.

Dock is great as a cooked leaf (like spinach) and can be used in pesto, and is high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The root is great for teas and medicinal uses.

Speedwells can be used to make a slightly bitter tea, which apparently, has good medicinal properties.

Ground Elder, pick the youngest, freshest shoots and they can be steamed or gently fried.

Stinging Nettles are one of the best natural resources out there; High in nutrients and as many uses as you can think of as a leaf, herb, flavouring, and for cordage.

Purple Dead Nettles are a little hairy compared to stinging nettle leaves, so use them sparingly as whole ingredients.

Spear Thistle roots taste like Jerusalem Artichoke when cooked, apparently, and you can eat the flower stems as a vegetable.

Clover can be used in small amounts to add variety to a wild salad.

Finally, Common Yarrow is edible both raw and cooked, but I just found out that apparently, it can be used in place of hops for flavouring and preservatives in beer! Guess what I’m looking forward to trying…