July 29, 2011 / 8:53 AM / 8 years ago

Poisonous hemlock hitting the heights in Britain

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The poisonous plant that famously finished off Socrates is sprouting to record sizes in Britain this year, prompting experts to issue health warnings.

Hemlock, long a key ingredient in European witchcraft potions and traditional medicines, is thriving thanks to an extended spell of hot weather mixed with recent heavy rains.

Hemlock contains the alkaloid coniine, a neurotoxin which causes respiratory paralysis and is fatal to humans and animals.

The plant is famous for its role in the execution of Greek philosopher Socrates, who was put on trial for impiety and corrupting the minds of young Athenians in 399 BC, and was eventually sentenced to death by drinking a cup of liquid containing hemlock.

Now Britain is seeing record growth of the plant, particularly in urban environments and areas of high pollution, such as roadsides, where the plants thrive.

“We are noticing a lot more hemlock this year — the combination of conditions has meant there has been a particularly good climate for the plant,” said Dominic Price, a botanist for the UK charity Plantlife.

“Hemlock plants are normally around 1-1/2 meters (5 feet) tall, but many are a good two meters tall this year and people are seeing more and more plants of this size,” he told Reuters.

The plant, which emits a musty, mouse-like odor in the sunlight, has dome-shaped clumps of white flowers and large stems with red or purple blotches.

Cases of hemlock poisoning are rare in the UK, but the plant poses a problem since it resembles the harmless cow parsley, which is also found along roadsides and near hedgerows.

Whilst exposure may not necessarily result in death, it could make you very ill, warns Price.

“We would certainly advise people not to touch or eat it, and to wash their hands afterwards if they handle it,” Price said.

“The giveaway is the red blotches: a general rule with plants is that red spots are nature’s way of telling you it is harmful.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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