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Poison hemlock. Clockwise from left: lacy, triangular leaves; white flowers in umbel; green stem with purple spots and blotches; seeds.

Poison Hemlock Risks

Learn before you look for poison hemlock.

Now that spring has finally arrived, University of Minnesota Extension is asking people to be on the lookout for poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), but they’ll need information before they take any action. As its name implies, the invasive plant is highly toxic — even fatal — to humans and animals.

“It’s especially important that people protect themselves if they come across it. Don’t even touch it with bare hands,” says Angela Gupta, Extension forestry educator. Worse would be if someone tried to harvest it, as could have happened last year when a gardener thought it was a large carrot plant. Fortunately, the gardener used Extension resources to make a positive identification.

“Extension and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) acted lightning fast last year when poison hemlock was found here,” says Gupta. “It’s already been placed on the Minnesota Noxious Weed Eradicate List.”

Because of a long-term collaboration between Extension and the MDA, poison hemlock got the attention it deserved and funds from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for education and management.

Extension and the MDA immediately focused on identification tools. An Extension poison hemlock website shows the plant, and compares it against common native and non-native look-alikes, including carrot. After the website launched, residents from across the state reported poison hemlock in 14 new counties. Most infestations are 20 or fewer plants and are being controlled by home and landowners.

After hearing poison hemlock was in their neighborhood, Extension Master Naturalist volunteers identified poison hemlock adjacent to a municipal compost pile. This facility makes compost and gives it to residents. Fortunately, the volunteers properly reported it and it was managed before it could have been introduced to home gardens. Trained Extension volunteers and other engaged Minnesotans will continue to be a major force in the response.

As poison hemlock emerges this spring, large, fern-like first-year rosettes will be visible. “Look for small purple spots on the stems, but don’t touch,” says Gupta. “May will be an important month to be vigilant.”

Poison hemlock, which is native to Europe and North Africa, requires considerable sunlight to flourish and is found often near railways, rivers, ditches, field edges, farms and bike paths. It is a biennial plant (having a two-year life cycle), and is unlikely to grow in very shady areas or places that are frequently mowed.

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Editor’s Note: This article is from the University of Minnesota Extension.







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