Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Good post topic, and very glad indeed that you were not harmed! In 2010 I had a huge poison hemlock grow in my backyard, since I was unfamiliar with the plant and simply thought I had an extra large Queen Annes Lace! Fortunately a pal, who is a Master Gardener, happened to come over and saw it and told me what it was, as I would have simply tossed it in the compost, which might have poisoned me, and would certainly have contaminated my compost, since it is unsafe to compost the plant either, according to Poison Control. The plant was over six feet tall, and had a stem an inch and a half across, and like you mentioned, it smelled “dangerous” rather than the pleasant carroty smell of Queen Annes Lace, or the liquorice smell of fennel. Apparently hemlock is quite prevalent here in the Northwest…

    • Compost! I’d never though about that possibility. Yikes.

      It makes sense you’d have a lot of hemlock in the Northwest, since it’s a wetter climate. We don’t see a lot of hemlock here, because the climate is generally too hot and dry–fennel, on the other hand, is totally ubiquitous, which makes it easy to forget about hemlock. Hemlock grows only near water here (and water is hard to find). The day I ate the seeds we were foraging in a dried up floodplain. Oops.

      But they are pretty plants, aren’t they? Queen Anne’s lace on overdrive! I kind of like to think of Hemlock as the bad girl in an otherwise sweet tempered family, like one of those soap opera vixens who’s gorgeous but always causing trouble.

    • Also I just realized that it is important for all gardeners who grow edibles. to have a working knowledge of local poisonous plants– even if they don’t forage. Ya never know who might pop up your yard!

    • Another fun member of the Apiaceae family is the Giant Hogweed. You are unlikely to mistake it for fennel because it grows 15-20 feet high, but it is a really nasty critter. Apart from being poisonous to eat, its sap can blind you and, if you get it on your skin, you become photo-sensitized and can break out in large blisters whenever you are exposed to sunlight for months to come. Keep away from it! It is the nearest thing to a Triffid that you will ever meet.

    • Ummm… Queen Anne’s Lace IS wild carrot, naturalised here in North America from Europe where it is a native plant. Our domesticated carrots are a subspecies

    • There really was nothing much out there to taste. Our teacher said it was the worst foraging he’d ever seen. We found a few nightshade berries, a bit of lambsquarter and dock seed. That was it.

  2. Queen Anne’s Lace has a deep purple (looks black in some light) spot on the blossom (actually it is one of the mini flowers on the umbel). Also the leafstalks are different from hemlock. They are hairy, and hemlock leafstalks are not hairy and have purple spots. The roots of Queen Anne’s Lace are edible, but not so hemlock. As noted above, don’t throw your old bouquet in the compost unless you know what it is.

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