Water Hemlock

During the summer of ‘85, I spent 2 months in Spain, specifically, a small neighborhood (barrio) on the edge Segovia where my grandmother lived. I recall all the time I spent in the rolling hills behind her home and down in the river playing with the local teens—some of them gypsies . Everyday was an adventure, hunting and fishing, using techniques not so common to us here, in the United States.

We would literally catch birds by the hundreds using birdlime, a sticky gummy substance we would spread on small twigs. We would set these liga (birdlime) covered twigs down by the waters edge,  and wait for birds to come down and get a drink. Of course they would land on the twigs and get stuck to it and then not be able to fly off. It was amazing the song birds we would catch and then sell back in town.

One of the other things we did was fish, but we would use a very unconventional method. We used fish poison, specifically, water hemlock. We would take a burlap sack and fill it with the root of this poisonous plant and then begin to mash it until it was a running, pulpy mess. We would then get in the slow moving stream and violently shake the burlap sack in the water, causing all the water hemlock juices to release through the sack. We didn’t have to wait long until the fish started rising to the top in violent behavior, bouncing off of rocks and literally beaching themselves on the shore. At the time, and being of foolish age, we actually thought it was funny and enjoyed the show. the stupidest part about the whole thing, now when I think about it, we did it just for sport. We never had any intention of eating the fish we caught.

Yeterday, I shared with you some things about Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), and how it causes death by attacking the central nervous system and eventually paralysis to the respiratory muscles which results in death due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain. It is a peaceful death, when compared to poisoning by Water Hemlock.

Water Hemlock (Cicuta Maculata) closely resembles poison hemlock, but is distinguished by its leaves. Water Hemlock is unique in the Apiaceae family in that it has leaf veins which terminate in the notches between the leaf tips, rather than extend to the tip of the leaf. Also, the root system in the poison hemlock is a single tap root, compared to the branched, tubuled root system of Water Hemlock.

Water Hemlocks primary toxin is cicutoxin. The exact toxic dose of plant material in humans is unknown; it is thought ingestion of water hemlock in any quantity can result in poisoning and very small amounts may lead to death. Poisoning has been reported following children blowing whistles made from the hollow stem of water hemlock plants. Intoxication has also been reported following skin contact with the plant; a case was reported where a family of five people rubbed the plant onto the skin and were poisoned, with two children dying.

Upon consumption, both in humans and other species, the symptoms of poisoning are mainly characterized by generalized seizures. The onset of symptoms following ingestion may be as soon as 15 minutes post-ingestion. Initial symptoms reported may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, tremors, confusion, weakness, dizziness, and drowsiness; although the rapid onset of seizure activity may be the first sign presenting following poisoning. Seizures are usually described as clonic or tonic-clonic. Complications of ongoing seizure activity include increased body temperature, swelling in the brain, blood coagulation disorders, muscle breakdown, and kidney failure. Additional neurological symptoms may include hallucinations, delirium, tingling, pricking, or numbness of a person’s skin, dilated pupils, and coma. Cardiovascular symptoms include alternating slow or fast heart rate and alternating low and high blood pressure. Symptoms of excess salivation, wheezing, respiratory distress, and absence of breathing have also been reported.

Water Hemlock

Deaths usually occur from respiratory failure or ventricular fibrillation secondary to ongoing seizure activity; fatalities have occurred within a few hours of ingestion. Poisoned people who recover usually regain consciousness and seizures cease within 24 to 48 hours of poisoning, although seizures may persist for up to 96 hours. There are occasional long-term effects such as retrograde amnesia of the events leading to intoxication and the intoxication itself. Other ongoing mild effects may include restlessness, muscle weakness, twitching, and anxiety. Complete resolution of symptoms may take a number of days or, in some cases, these ongoing symptoms may persist for months after poisoning.

The use of activated charcoal has been used to treat the poisoning, although there is no specific treatment for this poisoning. Best course of action is immediate medical attention.