POISON HEMLOCK

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the three prominent Greek thinkers whose philosophical works underpins much of Western culture. Socrates came first and was Plato’s teacher. He was the original “hippie”. Born in 470 B.C. Socrates chose a life of poverty and voluntary simplicity. He refused to accept money for his work; he felt his independence would be compromised. He wore the same coat in winter and summer and had no shoes or shirt. He spent most of his time in the marketplace and out on the streets, teaching and holding class whenever his followers gathered. His well‑known admonishment to his students was “know thyself.” He considered that task the greatest challenge a man could have. And I do mean “man” because even though Ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, women had few rights and the ubiquitous slaves had none.

Socrates was an independent guy who associated with a couple of seedy characters, Critias and Alcibiades. These two were members of the so‑called Thirty Tyrants and were instrumental in overthrowing the democratic rulers of Athens. During their short reign they ordered Socrates to arrest an innocent man. Socrates refused to participate in this illegal act in spite of the great risk to him; he was always a man of principle.

When the tyrants were toppled, democratic rule was restored. Socrates attracted a large following and encouraged his mostly young students to criticize the Athenian democracy and its authorities. The “establishment” could finally take it no longer and as an old man Socrates was indicted for “corruption of the youth.” It was a pretty fuzzy charge; his real sin was being outspoken and critical of the power brokers. One key bit of evidence against Socrates was that two of the ringleaders of the earlier revolt had been his students. But Socrates reminded the judges of his refusal to cooperate with the Tyrants.

At his trial the prosecution gave him every opportunity to plea bargain. Socrates refused to go into exile, the usual sentence for a political prisoner. In fact at every moment during the trail he rejected all compromises. The judges were forced to condemn Socrates to death. By drinking a cup of poison hemlock tea, he immortalized himself and the plant in one swallow.

Right now poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, is in full flower throughout California. Nearly every roadside ditch, disturbed field, and urban lot below 5,000′ sports poison hemlock. It was probably brought from the Mediterranean area to the New World in cattle feed, garden seeds or even in mattress stuffings. These biennial plants grow a large rosette of leaves over three feet in diameter during their first year. The following year they flower and can tower over a man.

Some say the leaves smell like mice. They do have a strong and distinct odor. When fog moistens the plant it smells like tortilla chips to me. On more than one occasion I’ve been hiking with kids when one of them shouts, “I smell Fritos!! Hey man, who’s eating their lunch?”

The stems are hollow and covered with purple spots. The tiny white flowers are clustered in an umbel (looks like a umbrella). The alternate leaves are finely dissected and closely resemble a carrot. In fact this plant is a member of the carrot family and even has a long taproot.

The similarity can get some people in trouble. This spring a couple from Bolinas thought they were gathering wild carrots. After munching on a few they decided they better seek help and went to the fire station for medical attention. They survived; others have not been so fortunate.

According to Medical Botany by Lewis and Lewis all parts of the plant are poisonous but the young leaves, unripe fruit and the roots contain the greatest concentration of coniine, the poisonous alkaloid. One mouthful of the root will kill an adult. Children sometimes become ill after making peashooters out of the hollow stems. The symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, violent stomach pain, numbness, slow heartbeat, and increasing muscular weakness with respiratory failure and then death. Fortunately for Socrates the Greeks always mixed a large dose of opium with their tea. He might have changed his mind and not become nearly so famous.

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Skills

Posted on

August 23, 2009