Water hemlock | Living the Country Life

Water hemlock

Leave that pretty white flower growing in the ditch alone. Water hemlock is so poisonous, even a small amount could kill you. Learn to recognize it and stay away.
Photo courtesy Iowa State University extension office

Radio interview source:  Rhonda Ferree, Extension Horticulture Educator, University of Illinois

There are plenty of weedy plants and flowers growing ditches, but you should leave them alone because they may be harmful.
Rhonda Ferree is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension. She says water hemlock grows in swamps and ditches. It's such a poisonous plant, that both humans and animals could die from eating it. Just touching the sap may result in serious skin issues. 
Water hemlock is also related to Queen Anne's Lace, and parts of Queen Anne's Lace can be eaten. The two look very similar, so Ferree says it's critical that you're able to distinguish one from the other. 
"Both have white flowers, but this one I think that the flowers are a little more spread out, a little more sparse, where the Queen Anne's Lace just looks like a little doily," she says. "And then the other really major distinguishing feature is the stem. The water hemlock has a thicker stem, but it's streaked with purple spots and that's a real good distinguishing characteristic."
Ferree says all parts of water hemlock are harmful, especially the roots.  
"The roots are a large tuber, and if we think about it, this is also closely related to wild parsnip, and the cultivated parsnips," says Ferree. "And so those roots are used in some food crops, but, of course this one is extremely poisonous. I would stay away from all parts of the plant and just consider it all extremely poisonous."
Eradicating water hemlock is difficult. Digging it out is the best option. But to kill it with chemicals, you have to get to that very large tuber. Ferree says there are very few herbicides that have enough systemic activity. Check with your extension service for an approved chemicals to control it.  

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