A Champion in Our Midst
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
A quick survey of the recent Olympics shows the intense desire to be number one at something. Rarely do we get to be in the presence of someone or something that is #1 in anything. A quick jaunt down to Allen Creek Trail will grant you just such an opportunity. Today’s Nine Minute Naturalist will introduce you to the number #1 most poisonous plant in North America, the water hemlock.
To be regarded as the most poisonous plant in an entire hemisphere is quite an achievement. This member of the carrot family produces cicutoxin which can cause delirium, nausea, convulsions, seizures and vomiting, often leading to death. All parts of this plant are poisonous but the roots contain the highest concentrations. Ingestion can lead to death in 15 minutes to 8 hours. The poison is so toxic that Native Americans are said to have used water hemlock to poison the tips of spears and arrows. This plant is not one to be handled.
The key to avoiding the deadliest plant in North America is through proper identification. Water hemlock grows from 2-7 feet in height and has distinct umbrella-like (umbels) white flowers that grow up to 6 inches wide. They will be in flower from July to September at Wintergreen. They have alternate twice or three times compound leaves and a distinctive stem that is tinged with purple. This native plant likes its “feet” wet and can be found in creeks, ditches, ponds, and swamps throughout Virginia.
Unfortunately, there are many look-alike plants throughout Virginia. The carrot family has a bunch of late summer flowering plants that can pose problems in identification. Parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace and water hemlock are all members of the carrot family that bloom at similar times. Queen Anne’s lace can be separated from water hemlock via location. Queen Anne’s lace grows in drier locals and prefers full sun while water hemlock prefers wetland soils and the shade. Parsnip has only singular compound leaves as opposed to twice or three times compound like water hemlock. Both look-alikes also lack the purple tinged stem of the water hemlock. It is also similar to poison hemlock made famous by the death of Socrates. The non-native poison hemlock flowers earlier in the summer and prefers drier soil types than water hemlock.
Now that you know more about the #1 deadliest plant in North America, it is time to get a close hand look for yourself. Allen Creek Nature Preserve is an excellent opportunity to get a glimpse of this species. It can be seen on both sides of the first bridge you cross on the right side as well as next to the final bridge you cross on the loop across the powerlines. Be sure to look but don’t touch!