In the News: Hemlock Water Dropwort Useful for Botox?

| 6/9/2009 2:58:10 PM


During my early childhood summers, I loved to forage for wild edibles with my best friend. We didn’t go the traditional route of gnawing on fruits and veggies from the garden but instead ate whatever green, leafy plants smelled somewhat appealing and weren’t too bitter. I marvel that we never got sick since our only tenet was a warning from our moms to stay away from the bush with the round, red berries. I guess our saving grace was eating only the plants that we were familiar with, such as clover, honeysuckle, watercress and sometimes grassy.

Occasionally, even expert foragers mistake tasty tidbits for potent poisons. My reluctance to forage on my own doubled after watching the scene in “Into the Wild” when [SPOILER ALERT] McCandless mistakenly eats the wild sweet pea thinking it was wild potato, which inevitably leads to his death.

Photo by Roger B./Courtesy Flickr

Now scientists have determined that another camouflaged plant, the hemlock water-dropwort, might have been the toxic ingredient in the Phoenician potion used to execute Sardinian criminals and the debilitated elderly. Its deceit lies in the sweet wine-like nectar of its flowers and its resemblance to water parsnip or wild celery.

The faces of its ancient victims revealed the toxin’s presence to scientists because of muscular contractions that resulted in a post-mortem smile. Imagine if this had been the same type of hemlock used on Socrates. I’m sure Plato’s account of his noble death would have been ruined by the presence of this “sardonic” grin.