There is a plant I keep encountering, both on foraging trips and while out running, and for a long time I had been entertaining the hope that it was wild carrot (Daucus carota), while secretly suspecting that it was actually poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). These two members of the Apiaceae/Umbelliferae family look very similar as young plants (and both are sometimes called Queen Anne’s lace), but armed with Samuel Thayer’s “Nature’s Garden” on our recent Redwood Park foraging trip, I was able to pin down once and for all that…dammit, yes: it’s hemlock.
Poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Not the wild carrot I was hoping for. Photo courtesy of Jen at willblogforfood.
The Apiaceae are a fickle lot of plants: some are friendly foodstuffs (carrot, fennel, celery, parsley, caraway), some are vicious poisons (poison hemlock, water hemlock, fool’s parsley), and some are something in between (like cow parsnip, which is edible but whose sap can be a strong irritant). Several of them look similar as young plants, too, with rosettes of feathery leaves and umbels of delicate white flowers.
Caraway, Carum carvi. If I hadn’t read the title, I might have thought it was fennel, because all these darn Apiaceae look similar. From Koehler’s Medizinal Pflanzen.
Over the centuries, many people have been poisoned by mixing them up. A handful of case studies from the last decade of folks who ate a variety of toxic Apiaceae can be found here, here, here, and here. For those who forage, wild wood survival offers a sturdy guide to telling tasty wild carrot from its toxic doppleganger. (Quick and dirty version: hemlock has smooth stems, sometimes speckled purple or with a chalky residue. It doesn’t smell very good, and its flowers are loosely packed in umbels, like caraway, above. Wild carrot has fuzzy stems, smells strongly of carrot, and has tightly-packed umbels of flowers with one dark purple flower in the middle. And if you’re in doubt, don’t eat it!)
Wild carrot, Daucus carota. Similar enough to C. maculatum to give you pause, and make you wish you’d brought some store-bought carrot leaves along for comparison. Photo from Gunther Blaich’s website.
And then, of course, there are the more sinister, deliberate poisonings. Continue reading