Mother Earth Living

The Magical Uses of Hemlock

According to herbal history, death by hemlock poisoning was the official method of execution in ancient Athens. Read more about the magical hemlock.
By Ellen Dugan
February 4, 2011
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Photo by William & Wilma Follette @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. 1992./Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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Excerpted from Garden Witch's Herbal: Green Magick, Herbalism & Spirituality (c) 2009 by Ellen Dugan. Used by permission. Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 166 to 167. 

Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Folk names include warlock’s weed, winter fern, water hemlock, poison hemlock, spotted hemlock, spotted cowbane, and water parsley. This is a biennial plant native to Europe, but it now also grows widely throughout America. It flourishes in waste areas and damp habitats.

According to herbal history, death by hemlock poisoning was the official method of execution in ancient Athens. Hemlock contains the extremely toxic alkaloid coniine in all of its parts, but most particularly in the seeds. Socrates was a famous victim of this toxic plant. The plant is often mistaken for fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). However, the fennel plant has foliage that is described as airy and feathery. I think fennel foliage looks like the delicate asparagus fern, and to help you with further identification, the fennel flowers are aromatic and yellow.

Another hemlock look-alike is the wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). The flowers of Queen Anne’s lace typically have a central floret that is purple. Another noted feature of this wildflower are the hairy stems, and you’ll also notice that as the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace wither, they contract into bowl-like shapes into which the seeds fall.

Hemlock is also distinguished from similar-looking plants by its foul smell and the markings on its stem. Hemlock’s stems are smooth and green and have purple spots, or red and purple streaks, on their lower half. A way to determine whether a plant is poison hemlock is to crush some leaves and smell the result. The fennel smells like anise or licorice, while the smell of poison hemlock is often described as rank, “mouselike,” or musty.

Hemlock has fernlike leaves and may grow up to six feet in height. The plant blooms from May through September. It bears white, compound umbel-type flowers that look remarkably similar to Queen Anne’s lace. (Hence the careful description of the flowers and the markings on the hemlock stems.) Remember, there will be no central purple floret on hemlock flowers.

Magickal uses are purification, and it was believed to squash your libido. This is another herb that is sacred to the goddess Hecate. Hemlock has feminine energies. Its astrological association is Saturn, and its elemental association is water.

Warning: A baneful herb, hemlock causes death by respiratory paralysis. Do not ingest. It also causes skin irritation on contact.

Buy Garden Witch's Herbal: Green Magick, Herbalism & Spirituality. 

Click here for the main article, From Our Bookshelf: An Introduction to Magical Herbalism.

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