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.”