Anne, Queen of Great Britain (reign March 1702 – May 1707) left her mark on the world in one unusual way. According to numerous historians the Queen was well known as an accomplished lace maker but even in excellence, mistakes happen. During one stitching session, the Queen accidentally pricked her finger and a drop of blood landed directly in the center of her beautiful lace. So what does this have to do with anything? Well supposedly it is the blood of Anne represented in the lovely herbaceous plant (depicted below) known as Queen Anne’s lace.
Queen Anne’s Lace is a biennial plant and it requires a vernalization period in order for it to reach maturity (about two years) when only then will it be able to produce a flower. Found along roadsides and neglected fields Daucus carota has a few common names and Wild Carrot is favored right behind Queen Anne’s Lace. As a relative of the carrot (our carrots were cultivated from this plant) it grows a taproot and was known as a choice edible among Native Americans as well as Europeans. Due to its high sugar content it was occasionally used as a sweetener and also historically known as a medicinal herb for a number of ailments. As an effective diuretic it was readily used for kidney cleansing – to induce the flow of urine and to tackle digestive issues including soothing turbulent digestive tracks.
This is a wonderful plant but…please do not harvest this flower for your next foraged salad… Remember the title of this blog? Well it’s time to talk about the Queens deadly “twin”.
Calling Conium maculatum the “twin” of D. carota is possibly a little bit of an exaggeration but then again the 44,000 poison victims in 2012 may agree with the exaggerated description. Conium maculatum, commonly known as Poison Hemlock, is a biennial plant with white umbel flowers, grows over three feet tall and has a similar root system to D. carota (and similar leaves to wild parsley, another family member). The most obvious difference between D. carota and C.maculatum is the reddish/ purple base of C. maculatum and unlike the sweet carrot smell of D. carota, Poison Hemlock has a strong aggressive scent.
So how poisonous is hemlock? This plant contains a few different toxic chemicals but the most poisonous is coninne. Coninne is known for its ability to disrupt the central nervous system causing dizziness, nausea, muscle paralysis and respiratory collapse. Yes that’s right- you will stop breathing – not immediately because it is a slow process taking on average between 24-48 hours after consumption. Historically hemlock concoctions were regularly used to kill condemned prisoners and in 399 BC the classic Greek philosopher Socrates happened to be one of them. Throughout time people who perished under hemlock consumption varied in age as well as reasoning. The most unfortunate victims were children. Due to the plants hollow stems, they make great whistles and sadly attracted many kids to an early death.
Last but not least poison hemlock is not only harmful to humans but extremely harmful to animals as well. The usual victims are cows, sheep, horses, and goats. The process is similar and depending on the amount ingested will dictate the time as well as the severity of symptoms prior to death.
Currently, there is not an antidote for ingested hemlock and can only be treated by stomach pumping, IV fluids and other procedures which can help relieve the body of hemlocks toxins but there are no guarantees. In the end, I suggest admiring the Queen from afar to be sure you don’t fall victim to her “twin”, Poison Hemlock.
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