Much as I love to grow rosy-cheeked apples and long stripes of pale green butter lettuce, I equally welcome the presence of poisonous weeds and flowers in the garden. No paradise is complete without the murmur of these dark sorcerers from beyond the fringe: snakeroot and henbane, monkshood and deadly nightshade.
Chief among the poisonous plants I respect is Conium maculatum, or poison hemlock, also known as the executioner of kings and philosophers, or “Socrates’ friend,” for the swift and fatal hemlock dose the Greek philosopher was condemned to drink by his political enemies around 400 B.C.E.
Poison hemlock figured prominently in Anglo-Saxon medicine and is mentioned in the old herbals from as early as the tenth century, when minute doses of this plant were administered as a mild narcotic sedative in cases of nervous excitability, cramping, and epilepsy. Mixed with fennel seed and betony, hemlock was used for the bite of a mad dog, and, taken as an inhalation, it relieved the wrack of bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough.
A vigorous, deep-rooted, and biennial member of the umbellifer clan, poison hemlock is a tall, multi-branching plant with finely cut foliage topped with umbels of small white flowers. When these flowers ripen their seed, the hemlock harvest is heavy: seed rains down in thick torrents, flooding the doors of the garden and drowning out less vigorous weeds.
The hollow, smooth stems of the hemlock plant are tarnished with sanguine flecks, often called “the blood of Socrates.” According to an Old English legend, these vivid stains also represent the brand that marked Cain’s brow after he murdered his brother.
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