One of my first encounters with a fellow plant enthusiast was a landscaper I worked for as a young lad. The guy was a first generation immigrant from Hungary with an almost non-stop flow of stories as we drove from one location to another. It didn’t take long for me to discover that a few of his stories were – how shall I put it – less than accurate.
During that time I had a fascination with native culinary and medicinal plants. I had done a fair amount of study utilizing the vast array of books available to me at the local library. I certainly recognized that I was no expert on the topic of wild plants and their medicinal and/or toxic properties, but I was fairly well read and had not yet met anyone with even an interest in the subject.
One day as we were working in the back lot of one of the pristine homes overlooking the city, my boss alerted me to a magnificent old specimen of Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. By this time I had begun to learn some of the more common conifers and I was happy to see a wonderful specimen of the Weeping Hemlock that I had only previously viewed in a book. As I excitedly approached this grand old tree, my boss warned me, “Don’t touch that one, its poison!”
“Poison?” I asked, not sure why he would say such a thing.
“That’s Hemlock, it’s poison!” he said with a tone of superiority that he knew something about the plant his young apprentice had not yet learned in his formal schooling.
“Poison Hemlock?” I asked, wondering if he was serious. “You mean like the drink Socrates was given as his death sentence?”
This turned out to be the wrong thing to say and only incited another stern warning to stay away from the tree because I would surely become poisoned and he didn’t have time to take me to the hospital.
Since that time, I have had several other opportunities, under less combative circumstances, to clarify to the less informed that, yes, there is a highly toxic plant called Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and no, it is not in any way related to the genus Tsuga, a non-toxic conifer commonly known as Hemlock.
You may ask why a woody coniferous tree would have the same name as a toxic herbaceous plant. If you have ever worked with Tsuga, you very likely have noticed that it has a very peculiar scent – not at all like Pine or Spruce. Apparently, its aroma is very much like that of the Poison Hemlock (and the Water Hemlock which is also very toxic to animals and humans). So, two completely different types of plants with nearly identical common names create the confusion and equates to one reason why I always prefer to use botanical names when discussing plants.
Interesting to note that there is one plant that looks almost identical to Poison Hemlock and it is actually edible. Queen Anne’s Lace or, the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), is an herbaceous plant with foliage and flowers that look very similar to Poison Hemlock but without the toxic properties. I am much more concerned about inexperienced wild food enthusiasts encountering Poison Hemlock in their quest for the tasty young root of the Wild Carrot than warning them away from my good friend, the Tsuga.
The moral to my story? Have no fear of enjoying the huge variety of excellent forms of Hemlock (Tsuga) in your garden. This is a genera filled with exciting dwarf, miniature and variegated forms; from the delightfully variegated, miniature, ‘Betty Rose’ to the tiny, ‘Minuta’ or the dwarf, irregular, sculptural form of ‘Jervis’ to the stately and sprawling ‘Cole’s Prostrate’, I believe that you will find a garden Hemlock that will be a safe and welcome addition to your garden.