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Plant of the week: Poisonous plant was used to calm epileptics


Name: Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa)

Otherwise known as: Poison Parsnip, Spotted Cowbane

Habitat: A perennial member of the Umbelliferae family, growing to about 2m along water courses in North America and Europe. It has parsnip-like roots that support thick, purple-striped, hollow stems with alternate compound leaves and closely-packed, pure white umbels. There is an overall odour of parsley. It is deadly poisonous.

What does it do: Primarily it kills livestock and occasionally, humans. There are a number of recorded instances where in times of famine country folk have consumed the roots mistaking them for parsnips. In addition children would cut the hollow stem to use as pea-shooters. There are four species in the Genus all producing the poison Cicutoxin which attacks the central nervous system. Grazing animals will sometimes grub up the roots around springs and streams and consume them, resulting in fatality. The plant shares many properties with true Hemlock but can be distinguished by its leaf form – larger in Water Hemlock – the density of the umbels, the stem is not spotted as in Hemlock, and there is no odour of parsley.

Medieval herbalists at one time gave tinctures of the plant to violent patients suffering from mental disorders and to epileptics to subdue them, with mixed results. Gerard states: ‘…with great care, small tinctures of the plant may be applied for the rage and falling sickness’. Culpeper suggested the fresh root be applied in cases of severe gout and for the violent heart spasm (angina) as it has a paralysing affect on the smooth muscles. The use was discontinued in the 19th century.


Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants

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