Water Hemlock
(Cicuta maculate)

The Water Hemlock, Cicuta maculate, is a highly poisonous plant that can be found throughout northern hemisphere mainly in North America and Europe. This perennial plant is a member of the parsley and carrot families.1 Common names include spotted cowbane, spotted water hemlock, poison parsnip, and spotted parsley.1

Water Hemlock typically grows to be between three and six feet tall.1 The stem is smooth, branching, stout, and is often mottled or solid purple1.The lower part of the stem is chambered and the roots are fat and tuber like with thick rootstocks. The leaves are about three to four inches long, alternate, compound, divided, and toothed. They normally have lance shaped leaflets that are pointed with numerous teeth.1 Sometimes multiples of leaves can rise up together to form a somewhat haphazard arrangement of leaves along the stem.1 The veins on the leaflets end at the notches between the teeth and are sometimes tinged with red.1 The hemlock will flower in the summer months with small white flowers that come in a flat or rounded umbrella shaped cluster that ranges from two to five inches wide.1 Individual flowers are about an eight of an inch wide and have five petals and five stamens.1

The whole plant. Note its somewhat open ragged look.

Leaves: note the 3 leaflet sets


Many, mini-clusters of white flowers

The stem. Note the purplish tinge.The stems are hollow. This tempting aspect has led to poisonings of children who find the stems appealing as pea shooters.

Water Hemlock typically grows in wet open areas such as marshes, open swamps, roadside ditches, moist woodlands and along shorelines1. They grow best in full or partial sunlight and moist to wet conditions.2external image C:%5CDOCUME%7E1%5CADMINI%7E1%5CLOCALS%7E1%5CTemp%5Cmsohtml1%5C01%5Cclip_image002.gif

Water Hemlock is prevalent throughout theUnited States and the greater North American Region.

Although the Water Hemlock is extremely poisonous, it is sometimes easily mistake for a number of other, similar plants including: Water Parsnip (Sium suave), Cowbane (Oxypolis rigidior), Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis), and the Eastern Hemlock Tree (Tsuga canadensis).1

o Kingdom: Plantae – Plants
o Subkingdom: Tracheobiota – Vascular plants
o Superdivision: Spermatophyta – Seed plants
o Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
o Class: Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
o Order: Apiales
o Family: Apiaceae – Carrot family
o Genus: Cicuta L. – Water Hemlock
o Species: Cicuta maculata L. – Spotted Water Hemlock

A very poisonous alkaloid and resinoid are found in all parts of the water hemlock, primarily in the roots and base of the stem.2 The pithy area between the nodes contains a greenish-yellow oil which contains the toxins.2 This toxin, Cicutoxin is present at all stages of growth and in all parts of the plant. It primarily affects the central nervous system where it acts as a stimulant and convulsant.2 In humans and animals alike, cicutoxin rapidly produces symptoms of nausea, emesis and abdominal pain, typically within 60 minutes of ingestion.2 This usually leads to trembling motions, followed by convulsions, frothing at the mouth and vomiting.2 The eyes of those affected by the poison are usually widely dilated and their body temperature is extremely high. In many cases, death occurs from respiratory failure a short time after one comes in contact with the plant.2
Livestock and humans are especially susceptible to this poison. The hemlock plant grows in soil which is wet and damp, which enables the animal to easily pull up the plant while grazing. Likewise, most cases of infection occur in the springtime.
Treatment for those exposed to the perils of the water hemlock is usually made in vain because of the rapid course and extreme toxicity of the plant. There is no specific antidote for water hemlock poisoning and treatment mainly consists of supportive care. Initial treatment of poisoning may include gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal or the administration of benzodiazepines in an attempt to control the seizures associated with contamination.3 Even still, if by chance the hemlock coma is prevented, further medical care including intubation and mechanical ventilation may be required for some time after. In 2003, 77,169 plant exposures were reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System.3 No human deaths from hemlock ingestion were reported to US Poison Control Centers from 1997-2003. 3

The Death of Socrates:


The Death of Socrates is a 1787 oil painting by the French Painter Jacques-Louis David.5 The scene depicted in the painting portrays the death of Greek philosopher Socrates who was condemned to death by drinking a poisonous hemlock tea in 399.4 The painting depicts his wife in the distance as she is leaving the prison, Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master's leg in the foreground.4 Socrates was condemned as an enemy of the state for the expression of his ideas against those of Athens' and corrupting the minds of the youth. He was given the choice to go into exile and renounce his philosophical teachings or be sentenced to death by drinking the hemlock. Socrates chose death. 4

This painting is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is one of Jacques-Louis David's greatest pieces of art. Thomas Jefferson was present at the painting’s unveiling and admired it immensely. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, compared the Death of Socrates with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Stanze, and often described it as `in every sense perfect'. 4


1. Muma, Walter. Water Hemlock, Ontario Wild Flowers. http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=117. Accessed Nov 20-25

2. Pickerning, John. Poisonout Plants of the Southern United States.http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?go=http:www.caf.wvu.edu/~forage/library /poisonous/page17.html. Accessed Nov 20-25

3. Brooks, Daniel E.
Plant Poisoning, Hemlock. eMedicine: 1994-2009. Medscape.http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/821362-overview. Accessed Nov 20-25

Jacques-Louis David- The Death of Socrates.// NeoClassism and French Revolution. Boston College Information and Technology Services. 2006 http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/neocl_dav_soc.html. Accessed Nov 20-25