Hemlock - a deadly plant closer than you think


Hemlock - a deadly plant closer than you think

Hemlock is the famous poison that killed the Greek philosopher Socrates, which might lead you to think that it is only to be found in the Mediterranean. But that's not true. This deadly member of the carrot family can be found all over the British Isles.

Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the minds of the young men of Athens in 399 BC and when his trial gave him a death sentence, he decided to take an infusion of hemlock.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) produces umbrella-like clusters of white flowers in June and July. It can be found in damp places, such as ditches, riverbanks and waste ground, and can grow to five to eight feet tall. It smells unpleasant, which usually ensures that humans and other mammals are not encouraged to try eating it.

However, there was a tragic accidental poisoning in 1845 when a poor Scottish tailor named Duncan Gow ate a sandwich lovingly made for him by his children, from what they thought to be parsley growing wild. Hemlock kills by paralysing muscles from toe to head, a creeping poison. The mind remains clear but breathing stops within a few hours.

The writer Agatha Christie, who, as a former pharmacist had a great deal of knowledge about poisons, used an extract of hemlock as the murder weapon in Five Little Pigs. The poison allowed the victim to come to the realisation of his fate whilst in the presence of his murderer, and yet be unable to do anything to confront the killer.

Further reading

Links to external websites are not maintained by Bite Sized Britain. They are provided to give users access to additional information. Bite Sized Britain is not responsible for the content of these external websites.