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Flood means poisonous hemlock

Linda Hiller

Scary plants are coming up in Diane Campbell’s garden. Things she didn’t plant.

Her home is located in the previously flooded area adjacent to the Carson Valley Golf Course in the “lower” Gardnerville Ranchos.

Since the floods, Campbell says her garden has been “absolutely gorgeous,” but one errant seedling got her attention last week.

When she realized exactly what it was, Campbell became alarmed, both for her llamas and for any other neighbors who might be having volunteers of this potentially deadly plant.

“I have llamas, and because of that I have learned to identify poisonous plants,” Campbell said. “This plant is very dangerous, because it does resemble carrots or parsnips. What if a small child picked it and ate it?”

The seedling, it turned out, was Conium Maculatum – poisonous hemlock.

In early Athens, juices from this plant were used to execute, among others, the Greek philosopher Socrates.

Gail Durham, Valley resource specialist and range manager, said poisonous hemlock is considered to be naturalized in the our part of the western range, and does grow south of Carson Valley, where the East Fork of the Carson River could have picked up the seeds and deposited them downstream in Campbell’s yard during the New Year’s flood.

“According to my range plant handbook, this plant is among the most virulent flowering plants native to the United States,” she said.

Poisonous hemlock is a tall biennial (lives two years) plant in the carrot and parsley family, also related to dill, fennel and anise. It resembles those plants in many ways, and because of that, humans and livestock have been poisoned by mistaking the plant for their edible cousins.

As the seedling grows, the white branched taproot begins to resemble a parsnip or wild artichoke.

“The worry with this plant is the root,” Durham said. “That is the most poisonous part.”

Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the root and seeds are the most potent parts and reportedly do not taste good.

The plant itself can have an unpleasant odor, and can grow quite tall – to 10 feet – with a single stem and an “umbule,” or umbrella-shaped white cluster of flowers, reminiscent of the wildflower, Queen Anne’s Lace.

Often called “fool’s parsley,” “California fern,” and “wildparsnips,” the leaves of poisonous hemlock are deeply divided into minute leaflets, resembling parsley, wild watercress or ferns.

The most important identifying feature of poisonous hemlock is the hairless stem. It is green with purple streaks or spots.

Symptoms of ingestion include vomiting diarrhea, weakness, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, coma and death.

According to Larry Hughes, Douglas County weed control supervisor, poison hemlock thrives in wet soil and is considered common in disturbed areas, but he hasn’t noticed a great deal of it in the county since the flood.

“I’m sure it’s around,” he said, “but there’s not enough for it to be put on the noxious weed list.”

Hughes was reluctant to disclose the location of poisonous hemlock plants in the county for health and safety reasons.

Poisonous hemlock is difficult to control with herbicides, he said.

“There aren’t any over-the-counter chemicals that will easily knock it down,” he said. Instead, he recommends anyone suspecting they might have the plant on their property to call him at 782-9835.

If you want to deal with the plants yourself, Hughes suggests using rubber gloves and a plastic bag, disposing of it all parts of the plant without touching it to your skin.