In the form of a beguiling tall stranger, death lurked in my garden last year.
This spring, it reappeared, but this time much closer to the house.
I only discovered its identity when, by chance, I bumped into a photo of this stranger while reading some news about the Pacific Northwest on the Internet. Accompanying the photo was a story about how in Washington State it was the suspect in one death and the known culprit in a near-death incident that sent another victim to the emergency room.
The photo was of a fernlike plant with features that could be mistaken for a wild carrot, parsnip, or even parsley. But this was none other than poison hemlock, a cousin to the water hemlock, which was served in a tea to political prisoners in Greece as an earlier form of capital punishment. Socrates himself, suffered the same fate in 399 BC, when he was tried and convicted of corrupting youth and failing to acknowledge the gods that the city of Athens had deemed to be deities. Some say his death was a suicide because he could have fled.
Closer to home, in an incident in 2010 that sent a Bellingham man to the emergency room, 35-year-old David Westerlund found a poison hemlock plant growing in his garden. Not knowing what it was but feeling confident that it must be something good — a carrot, perhaps — he picked it and chopped it up, adding it to some garlic, onions, cabbage, ginger, onions, sea salt and whey to ferment. Six days later, he ate it for lunch.
A short 10 minutes after dining on what he thought was a healthy veggie combo, he began feeling tremors running through his entire body, according to a description he shared with news reporters. To his dismay, he found that his eyes weren’t tracking and his muscle reactions were delayed.
“It was weird,” he told the reporters. “Nothing like this had ever happened to me.”
Westerlund spent four hours in the emergency room but doesn’t expect to suffer any long-term damage, although he did feel fatigued for a week. He counts himself lucky to still be alive.
“It just didn’t cross my mind that something toxic could be growing in my garden,” he said.
An advocate for local food, Westerlund wants to spread the word about the possibility of poison hemlock showing up in gardens or in farm fields, especially since there’s a strong movement to get locally grown foods into schools.
His take-home message from his experience is that people need to know what something is before they pull it up or pick it to eat it.
Whatcom County weed gurus say the likely source of the plant in Westerlund’s garden was some wild poison hemlock plants growing in the alleyway near the plot.
The story of the tall stranger in my garden tracks pretty well with Westerlund’s, except that I didn’t eat any of it. But I had been tempted because it looked so healthy — and because it was growing with some lettuce start varieties I had planted in the same exact location. When I saw it, I thought it was some sort of exotic lettuce or green that “foodies” have taken a fancy to. But for some reason, I resisted picking some of the leaves and chopping them up in a salad. I still don’t know why I didn’t do that. Perhaps Socrates was whispering some warnings in my ear.
A call to Washington State University Extension educator Don McMoran provided some information about the plant. It grows wild on the edges of fields, roadsides, ditches, and along the dikes that border the rivers in Skagit County. But weed scientists warn that this is a weed that can grow almost anywhere in almost any climate.
I sent a photo of the plant that had come up near my house this spring to WSU weed scientist Carl Libbey. He confirmed that it was a poison hemlock. When I told him that the plant had come up where I had planted some lettuce starts, he said that hemlock seeds can sometimes come in with soil mixtures that people or nurseries use for starts or other garden uses.
The first symptoms of being poisoned include a burning sensation in the mouth, confusion, nausea and muscle paralysis. Death typically follows from respiratory failure.
The state’s Noxious Weed Control Board warns that poison hemlock can be mistaken for some edible plants such as parsley, parsnip, wild carrot and anise.
In the tragic case of what appears to be hemlock poisoning, a Tacoma, Washington woman, Sakha Keo, 55, died in April 2010 from eating a salad that contained some poison hemlock. A neighbor took a KingTV reporter to see some hemlock that was growing close to the woman’s house.
A Pierce County Medical Examiner investigator this week told Food Safety News that the woman’s death certificate says, “Probable intoxication following ingestion of toxic substance.”
So far this year, only one hemlock poisoning has been reported in Washington State, Jim Williams, executive director of the state’s Poison Center, told Food Safety News. There were 11 reported poisonings in 2011, 14 in 2010 and eight in 2009.
As of May 1, 2012, no human deaths from hemlock ingestion have been reported to US Poison Control Centers during the past 10 years. However, counties are not obligated to report deaths from hemlock poisoning to the national center.
Information from Montana State University Extension says that confusing poison hemlock with other members of the carrot family is a common mistake, and a deadly one. One way to distinguish between the wild carrot and poison hemlock is the lack of hairs on the leaves and stems of poison hemlock. Purple splotches and stripes on the stem are other distinguishing features of poison hemlock.
Humans are not the only ones to be poisoned by this plant. Livestock and wildlife can die when they graze on fresh forage, harvested silage or hay contaminated with poison hemlock. Cattle, goats and horses are the most susceptible domesticated animals because they are least able to metabolize the toxins in the plants.
A persistent plant, hemlock reproduces solely by seeds, which often drop next to the parent plant and regenerate, thus forming dense stands of the invasive plant. Water, birds and rodents can
spread it to other areas. Since the plant stalk persists through the winter, the seeds can be dispersed from September through late February.
Managing poison hemlock requires a combination of early detection, prevention, containment and small-scale eradication. People who discover poison hemlock on their property should map and monitor areas of current stands and continually scout for newly established plants. Close management or spraying with chemicals are two options.
Washington State officials advise people who find poison hemlock growing in their garden or yard to don some gloves, pull it up, put it in a bag, seal the bag, and dispose of it. Never put it on a compost pile because children and pets might be tempted to handle or taste it.
For more information about poison hemlock, see the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks’ fact sheet, or view the tutorial on invasive exotic plants from Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
For a poison emergency in the U.S. call 1-800-222-1222 to reach the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Photos taken by Cookson Beecher.
Correction: The dates in the original version of this article regarding the hemlock poisoning of David Westerlund and Sakha Keo were incorrect and have been corrected. Those poisonings happened in 2010, not this year.© Food Safety News