Graceful biennial growing to a height of 8 ft (2.5 m). Has slender, red-speckled stems, finely divided leaves, small clusters of white flowers, and small seeds that have beaded ridges.
Habitat & Cultivation
Commonly found in Europe, hemlock also grows in temperate regions of Asia and North America. It flourishes in damp meadows, on riverbanks, and in open areas. The seeds are gathered when almost ripe in summer.
Hemlock contains alkaloids, mainly coniine, and a volatile oil. Coniine is extremely toxic and causes congenital deformities.
History & Folklore
Hemlock is notorious as the poison administered as a capital punishment in ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Socrates died in 399 BCE after drinking hemlock juice. According to an old English tradition, the stems took their color in sympathy with the mark placed on Cain’s forehead after he murdered Abel. In the 19th century, hemlock was used in conventional medicine as a painkiller.
Medicinal Actions & Uses
In extremely small quantities, hemlock is sedative and analgesic; in larger doses it causes paralysis and death. Rarely used today, it has been prescribed in the past as a treatment for epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and Sydenham’s chorea. Hemlock has also been used to treat acute cystitis.
Do not take internally. Use externally only under professional supervision. Hemlock is subject to legal restrictions in many countries.