I often find myself dropping down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole on my various researches. Sometimes I’m shocked, and that shock brings, I must confess, a frisson of delight. Wow, I think to myself in the idiom of my early adolescence, that’s amazing! Or scary! Or embarrassing! Whatever, it’s the shock that stimulates.
Today I’m thinking about the most poisonous plant in these isles, the hemlock water dropwort, or dead man’s fingers as the plant is commonly known. Apparently common along waterways, the plant could, if wild food gatherers confuse it with sweet parsley, be mistaken for an edible item. But the gatherers must beware — though the root tastes a bit like parsnip when first chewed, it can kill within a couple of hours of ingestion.
The hemlock water dropwort contains a neurotoxin, oenanthotoxin, in every part of its anatomy, but the poison is concentrated in stems and roots. One root is said to be sufficient to kill a grown cow. It’s said that an extract of this plant was the ‘hemlock’ that Socrates drank after his conviction for impiety by an Athenian court. More prosaically, the neurotoxin is also believed to have contributed, in a lateral-minded way, to the name of the beautiful island of Sardinia. It seems that the ancient (circa 2000 BC) Nuragic inhabitants of the island disposed of their incapacitated elders by means of administering this hemlock, which elicited a ‘sardonic grin,’ (risus sardonicus) because of its neuro-muscular rictus effects, before dropping them off a high rock to ensure their deaths below. I’m often tempted to breathe a silent prayer of thanks that we live in a more civilised society today, especially as I get older and more frail.
Anyway, perhaps the water dropwort is not a plant that would tend to appear particularly appetising, so fortunately deaths from its ingestion in the British Isles are rare: Wikipedia reports that only 13 cases of poisoning (mostly children) were identified in Britain during the 1970s, but 70% of those cases resulted in fatality. More typically, cattle have poisoned themselves when grazing has been limited.
And so my research continued, stimulated by the discovery of this splayed plant revealing its toxic stems in all their frightening pink-hued glory, as I delved deeper and deeper into its story. Perhaps the scariest aspect of my research is that the plant is so very common, a shocking toxin living in our midst, and with such a macabre past. I wonder if this feeling of being scared, shocked, can be perhaps a kind of facilitator of creativity, a sort of jolt to dislodge oneself from their mundane routine.
Musing aside, it’s time to shake myself and get on with a regular day, really. But good to know that this is a plant that one would definitely wish to avoid. And the joy of learning something new will stay with me while I remember to leave this particular plant well enough alone.