Poison Hemlock
KQED Perspective aired May 05
By Michael Ellis

When I was in college and riding my bike to class there was always a place along my journey that smelled suddenly like Fritos. The smell of corn chips permeated the air and invariably made me hungry. I never did figure out what that smell was until many years later along the coast of Marin. My first spring here I was walking through a waste field of tall weeds when suddenly there it was – the smell of Frito Lay corn chips. There was nothing around me but very tall and full flowering poison hemlock plants!

Yes it is true. I have objectively confirmed that many times with groups along the trail. Stopping them suddenly and asking what’s that smell? They always say corn chips and are surprised to discover the true source.

Poison hemlock is a European weed introduced into the new world many years ago. It likes it here and thrives in marginal lands. It is a member of the Umbellefarie or carrot family and like many members of that group it is a biennial. The first year is spent growing a very large rosette of leaves. The second year it sends up a huge flowering stalk that can be up to 8 feet tall in good conditions. The stems and leaves are covered with obvious purple spots, the stems are hollow and the tiny flowers are white. These three characteristics separate from another weed found growing in similar places – common fennel. Fennel smells like licorice, the stems are full of pith and the flowers are yellow. Please don’t confuse these two or you may end up like Socrates.

Socrates of course was the well known Greek thinker who was put on trail for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. The authorities really just wanted him to plead guilty and go into exile but he refused. His trial was well-documented, he forced them to convict him, he refused to leave and they had to punish in the usual way. Cup of poison hemlock mixed with a pretty good load of opium and he was on his way to philosopher heaven. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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August 5, 2009