Botanical Name: Western: Conium maculatum. Eastern: Tsuga chinensis.
Western hemlock is a seriously poisonous plant. EXTREME caution is advised. Ingestion can be lethal. Often mistaken for other plants, it is critical for Western hemlock to be correctly identified. On the other hand, Eastern hemlock is a conifer tree and not a poisonous flower. The tree is grown for its foliage and is considered safe and non-poisonous. Its needles are used as a tea.
Below is an overview of Western and Eastern hemlock, combining and interpreting the best of Western Science, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Shamanism, Folklore and more. Gain a balanced and thorough understanding of the healing properties of hemlock.
Western Name: Hemlock
Also Known As: Herb Bennet, Corobane, Musquash Root, Beaver Poison, Poison Parsley, Devil’s Porridge.
Organs/Systems: Nervous System, Muscles, Eyes, Respiratory System, Skin
Key Western Actions & Medicinal Uses: Conium maculatum: Narcotic, Sedative, Antispasmodic and in sufficient doses paralyses. Analgesic. Tetanus, helpful with kidney and bladder problems. Used externally for sores, ulcers, gangrene.
Pin Yin: Tieshan
Also Known As: Chinese or Taiwan Hemlock
Meridians: Meridians, Spleen, Bladder
Key TCM Actions & Medicinal Uses: Tsuga chinensis: Drain Dampness: diarrhea, edema. Promote Urination. Mouthwash/Gargle for throat and mouth sores. Powdered bark can be used to treat sweaty, malodorous feet.
Parts Most Frequently Used: Leaves, Fruit, Seeds, Bark
Flavors/Temps: Bitter, Cold
Caution: EXTREME CAUTION ADVISED. Western Hemlock is a POISON!! Symptoms of hemlock poisoning include trembling, incoordination, weak heartbeat, cold extremities, coma and death by respiratory failure. The toxicity can be absorbed through the skin, so it is important to wear gloves while touching this or any plant you suspect to be hemlock. OFTEN confused with other plants similar in appearance. Be sure to identify this and similar plants correctly.
Eastern hemlock, on the other hand, is a conifer tree that is grown for its foliage and is considered safe and non-poisonous. Its needles are used as a tea.
History/Folklore: The Greeks recognized Western hemlock as a poison. As a convicted prisoner, it was a Western hemlock drink that Socrates was condemned to drink. The plant’s name Conium derives from the Greek “konas” meaning “to whirl about,” because when ingested, this herb causes vertigo and potentially death. The Latin name maculatum means “spotted” and refers to the stem markings. |
According to old monastery records, Western hemlock was an ingredient in a “soporific sponge” solution that was administered over the nose of surgery patients in the 11th century. They also used it to reduce cancerous tumor growths. According to an old English legend, the purple streaks on the stems represented the Biblical story about Cai. The purple streaks on the hemlock plant stems symbolized the mark put on Cain’s brow after he had committed murder. The entire plant has a bitter taste and possesses a disagreeable odor and mousy scent, which is especially noticeable when it is bruised. The poisonous properties occur in all parts of the plant.
Poisoning has occurred from mistaking the leaves for parsley or carrots, the roots for parsnips, and the seeds for anise seeds. Domestic animals can die from eating it, but goats, larks and quail are said to be immune to it. The dried, ripe fruit is officially documented in the British Pharmacopeia and the Pharmacopeia of India. In homeopathy, it is used to treat weakness, vertigo, paralysis and vision problems. In Europe, it has been used since the Middle Ages and in witchcraft for astral travel and the purifying of swords and knives. It has been used in spells to ritually paralyze a situation. Culpeper said, “Hemlock is exceeding cold and very dangerous, and consequently not to be taken inwardly: It may be safely applied to inflammations, tumors and swelling in any part of the body (save the privy parts).”
In China, Eastern hemlock (or the hemlock tree) is known as Tsuga chinensis. It differs from the flowering plant Western hemlock prevalent in Europe and America. The Giant Panda prefers to nestle in the old trees of Eastern hemlock. The pinyin name literally translates to “iron fir.”
The timber of Eastern hemlock is used in furniture making and as a support in mines. The bark is used as a dye and the aromatic oils are used for their pleasing scent. The inner bark (either raw or dried) is ground into a powder and used to thicken soups and bread dough. An herbal tea is made from the young shoot tips. The tips are also used as an ingredient in “spruce beer.” Since the 1990’s, when it was discovered to be an effective anticancer treatment, there has been a 50% decline in the wild species. Thus, it is currently on the endangered species list. Presently, the plant is being cultivated to meet the growing market’s demands and to produce Taxol (pharmaceutical derived from the roots, wood, bark and leaves used to treat cancer).
Western hemlock (Conium maculatum): volatile oil, alkaloids, coniine (a neurotoxin that disrupts the functions of the central nervous system).
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga chinensis): tannins, resin, aromatic oils.
Western Hemlock Antidotes
Antidotes for Western hemlock poisoning include tannic acid, stimulants, and coffee. Emetics of zinc, mustard or castor oil, can be used and if needed artificial respiration.
Western hemlock is often confused with Queen Ann’s Lace and Osha. Hemlock stems are smooth with purple spots. Queen Anne’s Lace stems have hair and are plain green.
Hemlock Smells Like Mice
Western hemlock has a bad, musty smell that reminds some folks of mice. It is another way to distinguish it from similar looking plants that have no bad odor.
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