by Mason Heberling
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) was used to kill the Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. All parts of the plant are
highly toxic, containing an alkaloid poison, coniine, which disrupts the central nervous system and can cause paralysis of respiratory muscles and death.
Although native to Europe, poison hemlock has been introduced to the United States and can be found in the Pittsburgh region.
Despite the name, it is not related to hemlock trees, but instead a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae). Carrot family members are often recognizable by their flowers, which are on stalks that spread from a common point to form umbrella-like
clusters (botanically called an “umbel”).
Keep an eye out for this species. It is blooming now in our region along roadsides and ditches. Towering at heights of over 9 feet, this plant is hard to miss if you look for it. Aside from its height, it can also be distinguished from similar species by the purple blotches on the stems. It is best to avoid contact with this species. It can be fatal if ingested and can
also cause skin irritations if touched.
This summer is all about poison at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Staff will be sharing fascinating pieces of our collection that are toxic, poisonous, or venomous to celebrate our summer blockbuster exhibition The Power of Poison. For more information about this highly interactive, family-friendly exhibition, visit pop.carnegiemnh.org.