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Poisonous Water Hemlock

Farmers in N.D. have always tried to protect themselves from dangers that lurked in everyday life – like lightning, tornadoes, raging bulls, power-and take-off-shafts.

One little-remembered menace for farmers and livestock alike was a common plant named cicuta maculata, which also goes by wild parsnip, muskrat weed, or spotted parsley.  It’s also more-ominously known as water hemlock, snake root, cowbane, snake weed, and beaver poison.

Water hemlock, as the name implies, grew in wetlands.  The plant had a “purple stem, white flowers . . . and a pungent aromatic odor.”  Its stems grew from “thick, fleshy, underground roots . . . usually three or five in number.”

Water hemlock roots were more poisonous than its stalks, and the roots were oftentimes mistaken for horseradish.  Some people were “poisoned from mistaking young plants for parsley; and using the fresh leaves in soup.”

The symptoms of poisoning were many and fierce, including “pain in the bowels, vomiting, followed by violent convulsions, dilation of the pupils, frothing at the mouth;” along with “staggering, unconsciousness, gnashing of the teeth . . . ending in death.”

Doctors knew of no medical antidote and could treat it only by purging the stomach contents.

Sheep, cattle, horses and other livestock generally died. The only recommended antidote was to give the animal “two or three doses of melted lard” in hopes of slowing down absorption of the poison long enough to expel it in their manure.

It was on this date in 1917 that the Bismarck Tribune published a warning about water hemlock as the “most violently poisonous of temperate region plants,” with advice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how to recognize the dangerous plant.  Experts advised parents and teachers to teach youngsters how to recognize deadly plants and to forewarn children about the “the danger of eating strange roots.”

The best way to protect livestock was by digging out water hemlock plants and destroying all the roots.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates died by ingesting “poison hemlock,” a close relative of “water hemlock.” The latter grows throughout North America. Today’s Dakota Datebook warning may be summed up in five words: Beware of toxic water hemlock!

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Cicuta is Dangerous,” Bismarck Tribune, July 9, 1917, p. 6.

“Water Hemlock is Poisonous to Stock,” Williston Graphic, October 3, 1912, p. 8.

“Poisonous Hemlock,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, July 31, 1902, p. 1.

“Abundant in Meadow,” Ward County Independent, November 2, 1911, p. 6.

“Spotted Cowbane,” Williston Graphic, May 29, 1896, p. 3.

“Danger in Hemlock,” Bismarck Tribune, July 9, 1900, p. 3.

Walter Fertig, USDA Forest Service, “Plant of the Week: Water Hemlock,” https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/cicuta_maculata.shtml, accessed on May 22, 2018.

FDA Poisonous Plant Database, F.D.A. #F25578, Leunis Van Es, L.R. Waldron, “Some Stock Poisoning Plants of North Dakota,” North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, No. 58 (1903), 321-354, https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/plantox/detail.cfm?id=27969, accessed on May 22, 2018.

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