Nature Study: Hemlock

Last year we were going to get goats when we discovered that massive portion of our pasture is covered with this.

Poison Hemlock is apparently pretty nasty stuff for all animals- at
least, that’s what the websites we found said. The horses had been in that pasture for a year before we identified the hemlock. It was the only green plant out there that seemed to thrive long after the horses had eaten everything else, so we might have known that it was poisonous. The beneficial plants are not so hardy.

We read that out of all livestock only horses will totally avoid this noxious weed, and even they can accidentally eat it in the spring when it first comes up and is hard to see. If they do accidentally injest enough of it, it will make them very il. It’s so poisonous that small children have died simply from making whistles from the hollow stems and blowing them.

Here are some other pictures:
Collection of images from Google
Close Up of Stem

It’s really rather pretty in its own fashion. It greens up first in the spring and is the last thing to disappear completely for the winter. Note the ‘paint spattering’ on the stem. That’s one of the most distinguishing marks of poison hemlock. That purple splash against the green stem is pretty, unless you remember how poisonous it is and think of the stain as bloodstains. The splattering of color on the stem makes it possible for novices like us to be fairly certain of our identification. That is, we might have a different species of hemlock than we think, but we do have hemlock, and it is poisonous.

It’s in the wild carrot family, like Queen Anne’s Lace, so the leaves are pinnately compound, like the leaves on parsely and Queen Anne’s Lace. That means the leaves are divided roughly like a feather, or the leaves feather out on either side of a dividing stem or vein. The leaves look like ferns.

The flower pattern is called an ‘umbrel.’ The flowers bloom in an umbrella shape. Queen Anne’s lace does the same, and many people confuse the two plants, especially if they are looking only at the flower. Real Queen Anne’s lace has a black spot in the center. According to song and story, this black spot is a stitch Queen Anne put in the middle of her lace to identify it, a launderer’s mark, if you will.

Poison Hemlock, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrots, parsley, and wild carrot all seed every other year. Last year we spent many hours cutting it down before it went to seed, hoping that would reduce our infestation this year. We hired some high school students (public and homeschooled) to help out with the cutting down. We hired a high school drop out with a hard luck story, but he came once to work, the second time to smoke. It’s his business if he wants to smoke in his own space and time, but he wanted us to pay him for his smoking breaks, so he never returned. Seems his hard luck story was really an aversion to hard work story.

Hemlock comes up fairly easily, so the job was easier than the time in Nebraska when we had to try to get rid of a Canada Thistle infestation. Of course, it’s outside, it’s hot work, and we had a couple acres worth of the stuff. AFter we’d pulled up all we could see, we burned the pasture. Then we planted some seed suitable for livestock pasturing in this area.

We hoped that the grass would crowd out the hemlock this spring, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. Of course, this year it’s not quite so strong as last year, but it’s still coming back in much greater volume than we want.

The HEadmaster generally tries an organic method one season, to please me. After that, we employ nuclear options. That means that sometimes soon poison hemlock will be meeting poison weed-killer. Once the hemlock is eradicated, we’ll need to address the poison ivy, multiflora rose, and
garlic mustard.

Someday I will find the man who said that living in the country is the ‘simple life’ and I will beat him about the head and shoulders with poison hemlock plants, push him in a patch of poison ivy, imprison him in a tower surrounded by the multiflora rose, and feed him on a diet of garlic mustard sandwiches and water.

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