Freakin’ Evil Parsley Family: The Hemlocks, Wild Parsnip, and Giant Hogweed (Plus Some Not-So-Nasties)
Is it a wild carrot, or is it hemlock? The parsley family, also known as the celery family, contains so many dangerous lookalikes that I’ve run across more than one source that says simply don’t touch it if it looks like parsley. Hemlock is deadly, and many sources say it looks like both Queen Anne’s lace (poison hemlock) and elderberry (water hemlock). Actually, it also looks like several other members of this family that frequently escape gardens and grow in the wild. To the trained eye though, there are ways to tell these members apart.
However, I still won’t forage these for two reasons. One, why bother? I hear Queen Anne’s lace is woody and not as flavorful as a carrot, so I’d rather eat a carrot. I just don’t feel the need to whip out my magnifying glass when I’m out in the field so see if the plant in front of me is edible. There’s plenty of safer options that I’d rather go for.
Two, and more importantly, my son will do as I do. If I tell him “don’t even touch anything that looks like parsley” but he sees me gathering it, he might decide he knows more than he thinks he does. You know that thing were kids get all huffy because they think we aren’t listening to them or taking them seriously (they are often right) and they want a chance to show off their skills. Scary. I just don’t think this is a foraging source for me.
By the way, the hemlocks also not the only plant in the family to beware of. There’s a less toxic member of this family known as fool’s parsley. Wild parsnip can give you contact burns. There’s also a rare, but dangerous plant called giant hogweed. Ha, I saw some sources describe that one as “may cause skin irritation” or “can cause a rash due to photosensitivity” with no further explanation. Way to understate it guys. Anyway, if you know of another one that I haven’t run across, please let me know.
Througout the page, if a leaf is described as “resembling parsley”, it specifically means that the leaves are somewhat lacy looking and bipinnate or tripinnate. This means that the compound pinnate (resembling a feather) leaf is divided into another pinnate structure (bipinnate for divided twice), and then divided again (tri for divided three times). The leaflets are deeply lobed and almost look like another pinnate structure themselves. Sometimes the growth at the bottom is distinctly tripinnate while the newer growth looks more bipinnate.
Also, all of these have the classic compound umbel pattern in their flowers. A composite cluster of several stems (maybe 15-20) that split into more stems, that end in little white flowers with stamens that are longer than the petals. Sometimes these are densely packed and resemble an inverted umbrella with a flat top. Even in the same species though, this might not always be the case. Sometimes these are not quite so packed and more rounded, sometimes the clusters of white flowers are very separated and may look more like a bunch of white balloons floating together. Sometimes they are even more separated and look like a bunch of white lollipops.
This family has a lot of beneficial plants that are frequently grown in our gardens. I won’t go into all of the specifics, because that would turn a page about warning you of a few poisonous plants into a botanical dissertation worthy of a few chapters. Afraid I just don’t have that much free time. Water hemlock may look like angelica (Angelica archengelica) or wild celery. Poison hemlock resembles cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or wild chervil, anise (Pimpinella anisum), and caraway (Perideridia gairdneri). There are scores of other examples.
Queen Anne’s lace is what people are looking for when they go and accidentally poison themselves. It’s also called wild carrot and is in the same family. In fact, if you grow carrots and wish to save the seed, you might need to take precaution to avoid cross-pollination between the two. In fact, it is theoretically possible that hemlock may cross pollinate with your carrots, or with Queen Anne’s lace, though pages that I’ve seen that mention this theory don’t seem to be able to pin down information on it. This may be part of the reason some foragers thought they had wild carrot and ended up consuming hemlock. Or, it may be a rumor based on speculation. If you know something concrete about this possibility, let me know.
There is one very distinguishing feature that most Queen Anne’s lace has that the toxic members of this family do not: a purple spot in the middle of the umbel flower cluster. This is said to be a drop of blood from Queen Anne’s finger when she was making lace. It may fade after the plant is fertilized.
After fertilizing, the flower cluster folds up and inward on itself, forming a cup shape made out of tiny bristly seeds that can cling to clothing and pet hair. This seed head is where it gets another common name, bird’s nest. It has the lacy leaves that are frequently found in the parsley family, and of course a deep taproot that has an orange color (though it is supposed to be woody when compared to a carrot). It also smells like a carrot, while hemlock smells like parsnips. It has hairy green stems, while the stems of hemlock are smooth and may be (not always) flecked or streaked with purple.
Elderberry is not in the parsley family, but it should be contrasted with water hemlock here. Elderberry is a shrub with a woody stem that may have little white or cork-like polka dots running along it. The branches are filled with a soft pith that can be scraped out. The blossoms form an umbel that is flat on top, and feathery (pinnate) opposite compound leaves (not alternating like water hemlock). A close look (Deane uses a magnifying glass) at the leaves will show that if the veins reach the edges, they will end at the tip of the teeth, not in the indented notches. You shouldn’t need the magnifier though, hemlock has a green stem with soft tissues and perhaps some purple splotches. Also, hemlock does not produce fruit and the flower umbel shape is different. Plus, the veins on elderberry are shallow and fading at the edges, where in hemlock they are quite visible and grooved.
The ripe berries are edible, but I should mention that the unripe ones are not, and the wood is toxic and so are the leaves. People have been poisoned making whistles from the wood, and foragers are encouraged to make sure that no trace of stem remains on the berry. Even the ripe berries give some people problems.
There is a also caution about red elderberries. They are somewhat toxic (hydrogen cyanide), though can be made more edible by removing the seeds and stems then cooking them. Even when properly prepared, it may still cause digestive upset which implies the toxins are still present. Doesn’t seem worth the risk, too much cyanide doesn’t tend to end well.
Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) can be a tall herb, sometimes as tall as eight feet. It has a smooth stem that might have purple mottling or streaking. I’ve heard it described as if a serial killer had brutally bloodied someone nearby and the blood splashed on the stems. Vivid, but certainly a way to remember both the splotches and the danger involved in them. The leaves resemble parsley and are alternate. When crushed, they are said to smell like parsnips. I have no idea what a parsnip smells like, the important thing is that it doesn’t smell like a carrot and it’s a mousey, musty or rank scent that isn’t supposed to be pleasant. The main distinguishing characteristics seem to be a lack of hairs on the stems, the purple mottling, and the scent.
Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) grows to about two to seven feet tall. Like poison hemlock, the stem is green and might have some purple or reddish splotches. The young plant is sometimes purple all over, fading as it grows. The hollow stem has grooves or ribs running along it. The leaves are compound alternating leaves that are serrated (not the lacy parsley leaf, more like an elm or ash). The veins along the leaflet end in the notches between the serrated teeth. The veins on the leaf are grooved, and easy to see.
Even a small amount of either hemlock can cause death. I heard of one horrible story where a child used the hollow stem as a whistle and died. I’ve heard rumors that he isn’t the first, and there may be several historical cases. If even a tiny amount is ingested, get an ambulance immediately. It may be possible to keep the person alive with artificial respiration until the effects of the toxin wear off. If possible, take a sample of the plant for confirmation.
Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium), also known as cow’s parsley or lesser hemlock, or poison parsley, is not as poisonous as hemlock but it is still indeed a poison. It resembles hemlock with the alternating parsley like leaves and smooth stem.
I’ve seen several references to its medicinal properties. Really, please. Not worth the risk. It is a poisonous plant, there are other options for treatment that are safer. If you’re desperate enough to turn to this plant, you’re desperate enough to call a doctor (or visit the emergency room). If you think herbs are better because they are safer, take a closer look at this entire page (and go browse other poisonous plants). Use herbs (and probiotics) to help recover after treatment by a doctor, or to support treatment.
Wild Parsnip should be mentioned a little bit. It has the umbel flowers, but they are yellow rather than white. The leaves are alternating and pinnately compound, but they are not as lacy as parsley. They are more broad and are serrated like water hemlock, but they have a lobes on the bottom that make them resemble a mitten. Some have thinner leaves that remind me of some butterfly species I’ve seen that have a larger top wing than the lower wing. Some have more lobes than just the one, but only on the last few leaflets on the compound leaf structure. I’ve seen some pictures of leaves with enough deep lobes that it begins to resemble parsley, just not quite.
Contact with the sap (including if you brush against the plant, breaking the stem, and get sap on your clothes) can cause a rash that resembles sunburn (and it is sunburn, the sap reacts with the sun to cause this). The damage can leave dark red marks that won’t fade for a year. Apparently it’s so infrequently discussed that it can stump medical professionals.
Careful when mowing your lawn, the same page mentions that a family practitioner sees parsnip burns frequently in high school students hired to do lawn work and clear weeds from the sides of roadways. The burn typically only lasts a couple of days. Get it out of your lawn by just pulling it up by the root (wear gloves). Try to get it before it flowers or goes to seed. Boiling water may help kill any leftover root.
The “Get Off My Planet”
Giant Hogweed is another parsley that is not to be messed with. Touching this plant can cause blisters, and if the sap gets into your eyes, it can cause blindness. Okay, saying it causes blisters is a bit of an understatement. It removes your skin’s ability to combat UV rays, and for up to four years after exposure, even a brief trip outside can leave you with skin injuries that last months. The blisters look very, very painful and can leave scarring. For years. Probably increasing a risk of skin cancer. Plus, it will overgrow and out compete local plant life, killing them off and leading to soil erosion, and that’s just rude.
Check out this quote from this page. “Giant hogweed is in the carrot and parsley family, and can be confused with its cousins. Cow parsnip, Angelica, wild parsnip, wild chervil, poison hemlock, Queen Anne’s lace, and golden Alexanders are common lookalikes. Some of these plants also contain toxins, but none are as potent as giant hogweed.” Hemlock is on that list, y’all. We go on and on about hemlock, and this plant outranks it. Thankfully, that’s because it’s rare, due to government efforts to eradicate it. I wouldn’t cry if it went extinct.
It’s pretty noticeable, growing to the size of a small tree (around fifteen feet) with a four inch diameter to the stem. The stem is purplish and blotchy, has spines, and is hollow. I really don’t recommend messing with it to cut it open so you can check for that hollow stem. The leaves are deeply lobed with serrated edges and are shaped somewhat like a maple leaf, but can be five feet wide. The flower clusters are umbels with flat tops, and can be two feet wide.
That’s pretty big, and you’d think it would be easy to distinguish, but when it hasn’t reached its full height (seedlings happen), it might be mistaken for other members of the parsley family. Apparently it is sometimes mistaken for cow parsnip. Here’s a video on identifying and dealing with it, but he keeps talking about size. I’m over five foot tall but once upon a time I was smaller than a pea in a pod. Look at stem colors, and leaf shape. Knowing the leaf shape and purple splotchy stem can help you avoid it before it flowers.
Cutting it down will make the roots spread, and the seeds (which can spread through the air, yay) can remain dormant for several years in the soil. If you see one, you may need help getting rid of it. Pennsylvania has a hotline for it, here’s a number for Maryland and Deleware, here’s New York, here’s Connecticut, Michigan, and you can check a map for reported sightings in your area. If your state is lit up, click it and you can see the county, click that and you can see something more precise. That map only shows called in reports though.
If you do see it when you’re out and about, but you aren’t in one of the above states, I don’t know exactly what you would do. I would personally call the people at my local wildlife reserve, they tend to be helpful pointing me in the right direction. It was introduced from Asia as an ornamental. What asshat thought that was a good idea?