Conium n : small genus of highly toxic biennials: hemlock [syn: genus Conium]
Conium is a genus of two species of highly poisonous perennial herbaceous flowering plants in the family Apiaceae, native to Europe and the Mediterranean region (C. maculatum), and to southern Africa (C. chaerophylloides).
By far the most familiar species is Conium maculatum (Hemlock or Poison Hemlock), the most common of several species of hemlock noted for their toxicity. It is a herbaceous biennial plant which grows between 1.5–2.5 m tall, with a smooth green stem, usually spotted or streaked with red or purple on the lower half of the stem. The leaves are finely divided and lacy, overall triangular in shape, up to 50 cm long and 40 cm broad. The flowers are small, white, clustered in umbels up to 10–15 cm across. The plant is often mistaken for fennel, parsley or wild carrot although the characteristic stem hairs of the wild carrots are missing. The Conium root is fleshy, white and often unbranched and can be mistaken for parsnip. When crushed, the leaves and root emit a rank, unpleasant odour often compared to that of parsnips.
Conium contains the alkaloids coniine, N-methylconiine, conhydrine, pseudoconhydrine, g-coniceïne and atropine.
The most important and toxic of these is coniine. Coniine is a neurotoxin, which disrupts the workings of the peripheral nervous system and is toxic to people and all classes of livestock. Coniine causes death by blocking the neuromuscular junction in a manner similar to curare; this results in an ascending muscular paralysis with eventually paralysis of the respiratory muscles which results in death due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain. Death can easily be prevented by artificial ventilation until the effects have worn off 48-72 hours later. Ingestion of Poison Hemlock in any quantity can result in respiratory collapse and death.
Distribution and Identification
Conium maculatum has been introduced and naturalised in many other areas, including much of Asia, North America and Australia. Poison hemlock is often found on poorly drained soils, particularly near streams, ditches, and other surface water.
In the Mountain West of North America, poison hemlock has become well established and invasive, and can be found in remote mountain areas anywhere water is present or soils are persistently moist. It is often found growing in the same habitat and side by side with Osha and Lomatium species, useful medicinal relatives in the Parsley family which Hemlock closely resembles, and can be very difficult to distinguish from Lomatium (an important historical food plant of Native Americans known as Biscuit Root).
Hemlock's distinguishing characteristics are it requires a more consistent supply of water than Lomatium or Osha, and Lomatium species tend to prefer dry rocky soils devoid of organic material. Lomatium roots have a delicate rice-like odor, unlike the musty odor of Hemlock, with finely divided, hairlike leaves in most Lomatium species. Lomatium species tend to produce yellow flowers, but some species are white flowered and closely resemble Poison Hemlock. If the plant is growing on a hillside in dry, mineral soil far away from a source of water and has umbells of yellow flowers, its likely a Lomatium. It the plant is growing in an area near water in consistently moist soil, is tall (0.75-2m), has purple splotches on the main stem, and is heavily branched with small umbels of white flowers, it is probably Hemlock and should be avoided.
Osha does not do well in overly moist soils since it is a species dependent on mycorrhizal fungi to survive, but there are areas where Osha and Poison Hemlock can be found only a few feet from each other. Poison Hemlock lacks the "spicy celery" odor of Osha, and is easily distinguished from it due to the absence of hairlike dead leaf material present on the root crown of Osha roots. Poison Hemlock roots in many cases have no discernible odor, and are typically heavily branched rather than carrot-like, but this is not always the case. The plants themselves smell musty or "mousy", and in most instances will have purple blotches or shading on the lower stem of the plant if the plant is fairly mature, but again, this is not always the case.
A useful trick to determine whether a plant is poison hemlock rather than fennel, which it resembles, is to crush some leaves and smell the result. Fennel smells like anise or liquorice, whereas the smell of poison hemlock is often described as mouse-like or musty. Considering the high toxicity of poison hemlock, if the plant cannot be identified it must be discarded. Coniine can be absorbed through the skin, and it is well advised to wash your hands immediately after handling this plant and avoid touching your eyes or mouth if you have recently handled or come into contact with Poison Hemlock, or if you have crushed the leaves of this plant in your hand to perform a "smell test".
Conium is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Silver-ground Carpet.
Poison hemlock flourishes in the spring, when most other forage is gone. All plant parts are poisonous but once the plant is dried, the poison is greatly reduced, however not gone completely. Hemlock is also known as "poison parsley" or "spotted parsley".
Poison hemlock is sometimes confused with water hemlocks in the related genus Cicuta, but are readily distinguished by the less finely divided leaves of the latter; the leaf veins of poison hemlock also run through the tips of the teeth, but those of the water hemlock run through the notches in between the teeth. The poison hemlock's root is long, white, and fleshy and is usually stringy and heavily branched, but can be carrot-like and unbranched in younger specimens of Conium. Water hemlock's roots are made up of several tubers, and are typically chambered, and excude a yellow, rank, highly toxic sap that contains cicutoxin.
Socratesmainarticle Trial of Socrates
In ancient Greece, hemlock was used to poison condemned prisoners. The most famous victim of hemlock poisoning is the philosopher Socrates. After being condemned to death for impiety in 399 BC, Socrates was given a potent solution of the hemlock plant. Plato described Socrates' death in the Phaedo :
- "The man … laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said — and these were his last words — 'Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.' 'That,' said Crito, 'shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.' To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes."
Although many have questioned whether this is a factual account, careful attention to Plato's words, modern and ancient medicine, and other ancient Greek sources point to the above account being consistent with Conium poisoning.
Sometimes the characteristic red spots found on the stem and branches are referred to as "the blood of Socrates" in reference to his death.
Medicinal usesPoison hemlock has been used as a sedative and for its antispasmodic properties. It was also used by Greek and Persian physicians for a variety of problems, such as arthritis. However, it wasn't always effective, as the difference between a therapeutic and a toxic amount is very slight. Overdoses can produce paralysis and loss of speech being followed by depression of the respiratory function and then death.
References and external links
- Germplasm Resources Information Network: Conium
- Flora Europaea: Conium
- Edible and Medicinal plants of the West, Gregory L. Tilford, ISBN 0-87842-359-1
Conium in Aromanian: Conium maculatum
Conium in Bulgarian: Бучиниш
Conium in Catalan: Conium
Conium in Czech: Bolehlav plamatý
Conium in Danish: Skarntyde
Conium in German: Gefleckter Schierling
Conium in Spanish: Conium maculatum
Conium in Persian: شوکران
Conium in French: Grande ciguë
Conium in Galician: Cicuta
Conium in Italian: Conium
Conium in Georgian: კონიო
Conium in Lithuanian: Mauda
Conium in Hungarian: Bürök
Conium in Dutch: Gevlekte scheerling
Conium in Japanese: ドクニンジン
Conium in Narom: Conium maculatum
Conium in Polish: Szczwół plamisty
Conium in Portuguese: Cicuta
Conium in Russian: Болиголов пятнистый
Conium in Sicilian: Cicuta
Conium in Slovak: Bolehlav škvrnitý
Conium in Finnish: Myrkkykatko
Conium in Swedish: Odört
Conium in Ukrainian: Болиголов плямистий