It wasn’t long ago that I’d avoid trying to identify a plant in the carrot family – other than Cow Parsley – particularly when it wasn’t in flower. But nothing ventured etc., so here goes….
In Crystal Palace Park, I notice a spray of leaves with a different visual rhythm to familiar Cow Parsley leaves. They’re a little more delicate, a little more finely divided. It has a strong and fairly unpleasant mousy smell; and the stems are hollow, hairless and spotted purple. All this strongly suggests Hemlock, which probably won’t be flowering until June.
If I’m right, then this plant is very poisonous, containing an alkaloid, coniline, which causes acute muscle paralysis. Socrates is thought to have been killed by this. Very, very few people suffer hemlock poisoning these days and I’m torn between thinking (a) it would be a good idea of children were encouraged to recognise it or (b) that park keepers would then systematically and pointlessly destroy it. And it’s possible that interest in foraging means that poisoning cases might increase. I resolve to ask my friend S. who used to work on the NHS poisons helpline if she ever had any cases.
Anyway I now have Hemlock sap all over my hands and no way of washing them, but need to call in at the supermarket on the way home. Turns out hand sanitiser isn’t good for everything. It’s all very well protecting other people from viruses, but I definitely don’t want to be responsible for a first wave of Hemlock poisoning in Crystal Palace.