From the Archives: That Time Kelly Accidentally Ate Hemlock

Death of Socrates JacquesLouisDavid

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (detail).

At the risk of bragging, in the tenth year of this blog we’ve accumulated 2,735 published posts and another 706 unpublished drafts. Using a random number generator I decided to pick out a random post to see what the heck is in the archive. A blog post by Kelly came up, from October of 2013, that tells the story of how she accidentally munched on a piece of dried hemlock (Conium maculatum) having confused it for fennel.

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.

As you might guess, Kelly survived. And thank you random number generator for the Jungian synchronicity: our last podcast is an interview with Pascal.

As Kelly notes in her blog post, Hemlock is in the Apiaceae (carrot family). Novice foragers would be wise to avoid this family entirely. That said, Pascal tells a story of running into a group of older Armenian woman gathering hemlock. When he questioned them they explained that they boil the hemlock and change out the water multiple times to make the leaves edible. I suspect they were using the plant medicinally. Neither Pascal nor Root Simple endorse this.

Happy summer foraging and watch out for the hemlock! Let us know in the comments if you’ve ever made a foraging mistake.


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  1. Funny, I had a moment like that today. I’ve been helping an alder grove stay clear of blackberry and it has responded with a flush of native plants. One of which I thought was salmonberry. I grew up in Alaska with salmonberry and was feeling OK about my identification until I tasted it. “Hmmm. This tastes way better than salmonberry. In fact, I don’t recall salmonberry looking quite this velvety. Hmmm. What the hell did I just eat?” Quick google search revealed it to be thimbleberry, which is completely edible and delicious. Turns out I now I have a thriving patch of thimbleberry, giving me extra motivation to think of my little alder grove as a food forest and keep the blackberry at bay!

  2. Back in 1990 or ’91, I was harvesting parsley from my herb garden, which also had wormwood growing in it and I picked some of that too by mistake. Both my wife and I quickly commented that the salad tasted a bit strange before removing the offending leaves. Also four or five years ago I harvested some wild blackberries from the back of shopping center that must have just been sprayed with something nasty because I was praying to the porcelain God a few hours later.

  3. Speaking of archives, would you re post the one about Sloth you did awhile back? I am feeling very slothful. I liked reading what you had to say about it.

    • Years ago, when I wore such things, I used to have a T-shirt with a picture of a sloth (the animal) on it saying: “Sigh! I wish I was Lust”

  4. That’s a good story. And I don’t remember it from the first go-round.

    Matt once fed me a berry that tasted like some sort of horrible chemical concoction after mis-identifying it as a huckleberry. To be fair, he’d ID’d a few ACTUAL huckleberries the day before, but he missed the mark in this one instance. Of course, since it tasted like poison I spit it out immediately. That is NOT what a huckleberry tastes like.

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