Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike. They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.
Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.
Except when they are all dried out.
When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.
And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.
As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.
He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”
At this point I’d already swallowed or spit out the seeds. You know, whichever.
I said, “Oh…um…I just ate a couple of seeds.”
The rest of the class made noises of dismay. Someone offered me water.
It was really embarrassing.
Dosage is everything with poisons, and I was not worried about two or three maybe-swallowed-maybe-chewed-and-spit seeds. Especially not dried up, sun baked seeds. Pascal wasn’t worried either, and waved away all the concern, distracting us with the tale of how he ate some fresh hemlock leaves in a an early foraging error and spent hours vomiting. And yes, I was just fine.
It got me to thinking how vitally important taste and smell are to a forager. Looks can be deceiving, but scent and taste are always there for you.
I hesitated over those seeds because they did not taste the way I expected them to taste. I didn’t do it out of fear. I wasn’t thinking about hemlock. But I was in forager mode. In this mode I am much more rooted in the senses. Touch, taste, sniff. The plant didn’t taste right. My sensing body paused to re-evaluate without input from the thinking part. The thinking part of me blurted out my sad, “Here’s some fennel?” question/statement to Pascal, already realizing, as I spoke, that the initial identification had been wrong. The sensing body said so.
If I had been alone, I may have realized my mistake on my own, or I may have walked on simply because they didn’t taste good. Or I might never made the mistake because I would have been less distracted by chit chatting with the other students. It’s hard to say. I know I would not have eaten more seeds.
Still, that was stupid. Lesson learned.
From now on out I will think before I nibble. I will also put lots of emphasis on tasting and smelling everything an experienced forager identifies for me. Those senses have long memories, and are hard to fool.
Some notes on hemlock:
I’ve always been wary of baby hemlock. It likes to grow where chickweed grows, so its easy to pull up a few hemlock sprouts along with young chickweed, and it doesn’t take much fresh hemlock in your salad to make you very sick.
The main poison in hemlock coniine, which is similar to nicotine in both its chemical structure and pharmacological properties. It takes about 100 mg of coniine to kill an adult, which amounts to a handful of fresh leaves or even less root or seed. Fresh plant matter is much more poisonous than dry matter–luckily for me.
Coniine disrupts the central nervous system and causes respiratory collapse through the paralysis of the respiratory muscles. It is perhaps most famous as the drug which Socrates took when he was executed by the state. The effects of the drug will actually wear off in a couple of days, so interestingly, if you can be kept alive on artificial respirator for that period, there is hope.
This is of no comfort to Socrates, however.