The poison hemlock plant is a general title for a small, two-species genus of perennial and biennial herbaceous plants called conium, which belong to the apiaceae family and apioideae subfamily. These pernicious plants are native to temperate regions of West Asia, north Africa and Europe, but their distribution ranges as far as North America, New Zealand and Australia. Poison hemlocks can grow between 5 to 10 feet in height, and are grown from long, slender, hollow steams which may have either red or purple spotting. Its foliage is made up of alternate, lacy, triangular leaves that are similar in appearance to parsley. They also bear tiny, white clusters of flowers.
The poison hemlock plant, as its common name implies, is considered terrifically toxic and rather difficult to detect, as they have a similar appearance to that of carrots, parsnips and parsley. Fortunately, though, these weedy plants give off small warnings. For example, when gently brushed against, they release a vaguely sweet, earthly scent; however, when they are damaged or crushed, they give off a foul, rotting odor. These plants contain a multitude of alkaloids, the most problematic of which is coniine, a neurotoxin that has been shown to effect the central nervous system – even in small doses. Although the entire plant is considered poisonous, the seeds are thought to hold the highest concentration. Because of this, many ancient medicine men felt that minute doses culled from the greens of the poison hemlock plant – often mixed with other herbs – could help treat ailments such as skin disorders, arthritis, and nervous excitement. Poison hemlocks were not strictly used for medicinal purposes, however. One of the best known examples of this pertains to the Classical Greek philosopher, Socrates, who – after having been found guilty of impiety – was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. Other examples tell of witches growing this plant in their gardens to help purify magical accoutrements, to cast spells of impotence, and to ritualistically disable a bad situation.
The poison hemlock plant is almost exclusively associated with negative symbols, such as calamity, injustice and the dampening of romantic desires. Although these plants may be pretty to some, it is inadvisable to give them as gifts; not only are they rife with unfavorable associations, but they can also be incredibly harmful to keep around the house – especially if there are small children or animals present.