Hemlock for Your Health

| April 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

Hemlock is an invasive weed that originated in the Mediterranean and Europe.

Herbalist thought process can be unexpected. If a plant is poisonous, so goes the herbalist thinking, then it must be useful. A well-known expert in plant lore, Christopher Hobbs, once explained at a lecture that when a plant is “toxic” it is to be used in small amounts and with great caution; when a plant is lethal, it will kill you. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) refers to strong-acting herbs as “little poisons.” Following this line of thinking, even a plant as famous for being deadly as hemlock (Conium maculatum) must have some therapeutic value.

Toxic plants have mostly fallen out of use due to the fact that the difference between an effective treatment dose and an overdose is so small that it is easy to make a mistake. Much like the goals of chemotherapy for cancer, the technique is to calculate the maximum amount that can be tolerated by an individual without actually killing the patient. And this calculation requires far more than a simple body weight ratio. It involves the determination of the relative constitutional robustness of the person, the rate of their metabolism and the state of their immediate health.

Many of the more toxic plant extracts have found their way into modern chemotherapy drugs.

Most of us have heard the story that Socrates was executed or committed suicide, depending on which version of history you believe, by taking a drink made of hemlock. Based on the description of his symptoms, and the fact that the event took place in Greece, the plant can be presumed to be the conium type of hemlock and not the water hemlock (Cicuta virosa) that grows in cool wet climates in Northern Europe and especially not the tree called Hemlock (Tsuga) that grows in wet mountain areas of Japan, Canada and similar locales. When you find reference to hemlock in literature, it is the poison-of-choice for its presumed “gentle” death from progressive paralysis starting at the extremities and moving to the lungs, where is stops the breathing. This device has been used in Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfeal and Agatha Christy’s Hercule Poirot murder mystery series, as well as mention being made in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear and even in a poem by John Keats.

The real danger with hemlock is that it is a member of a large family of plants that look similar, and many of which are cultivated as food. This makes it possible to confuse the hemlock with a wild carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel or many of the other plants that flower and form seeds in a “umbel” formation. Umbels look like an umbrella composed of many small flowers held on the “spokes” extending from a central stem. With a little training, you can learn to make a positive identification; a crushed leaf with have a decidedly pungent, rank, “mousy” smell. The stems will be grey-green and have purple stains, blotches or streaks at the base. The seeds, being the most concentrated source of toxin, taste bitter. Carrots, celery and fennel will all have strong characteristic odors that remind you of food.

Ancient Romans made use of hemlock as early as the 11th century, according to monastery records, as part of their “soporific sponge” solution that was administered over the nose of surgery patients. The fumes of hemlock, opium, henbane and mandrake were enough to sedate the person for over 48 hours. The Roman monk healers also used it as a treatment for skin conditions and to reduce cancerous tumor growth though they did not give their formula or methods for this use.

In our world, you can find hemlock in the homeopathic preparations, taking advantage of their understanding that, like a vaccine, an infinitesimal amount of a substance that causes a symptom can treat or prevent that symptom. As you might guess, the homeopathic medicine is used for weakness and paralysis, vertigo, vision problems, as well as the same cancerous tumor growth that the Romans identified. It has been cited for use as a sedative, to reduce muscle cramping or spasms. The homeopathic preparation has been so repeatedly diluted that no amount of the toxic alkaloids remain, eliminating the danger of overdose.

Hemlock is an invasive weed that originated in the Mediterranean and Europe. It now shows up in San Diego County in our creeks and marshes during the spring. It grows closer to the water and less out in the open fields than fennel or carrot. If you are hiking, take the opportunity to look closely at the plants, crush leaves and smell them, compare leaf shapes to similar plants and generally become familiar with what is growing. Take some pictures and carry a plant identification book. The toxic dose of hemlock depends on your health, as well as the age and freshness of the plant and the part consumed (seeds being the most potent). Be careful when sampling the bounty of nature so that you can enjoy the experience.

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Category: Health & Fitness

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