Harvesting Umbelliferaes

Here’s an old repost of mine from herb@trearn.bitnet:

I teach extreme caution in identifying Umbelliferaes. Wild Carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, doesn’t grow near Water Hemlock, Cicuta sp. This is good, as most of the time they cannot be mistaken because they don’t grow together. The Daucus likes dry, disturbed areas and the Cicuta likes standing water. Cicuta is often found in ditches, marshes, and the wet muck. It’s roots have horizontal partitions in them, creating little pockets; however, cutting the root open may cause poisoning on broken skin. Besides, although the roots may not look alike GENERALLY, there’s always the chance that the Cicuta has a taproot-like root in an odd circumstance, without the partitions, and that the Daucus doesn’t form a taproot in an odd circumstance. Poisoning can be fatal, so don’t guess or go by roots. Especially Umbelliferae Roots. Trained botanist have been poisoned by mistaking Umbelliferae roots. Also, in an unusual case, a wet ditch may be right next to a dry disturbed area, putting these two plants within feet of each other.

On the other, hand Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum, is a very different plant than Water Hemlock, Cicuta sp. It grows in the same ecosystems as Daucus, and there is a great chance of mistaking the two. Here are the field characteristics I use to tell the species apart:

Daucus carota:

  1. Stem hairy
  2. No purple spots on stem, but sometimes purple blotches
  3. White root smells like a carrot.

Conium maculatum:

  1. No hair on stems (glabrous)
  2. Purple spots on stem
  3. Root smells like urine at best.

Please use all three characteristics, not just one of them. The smells of the Hemlocks seem to change depending on environmental and other factors. I have smelled Hemlock seeds that have pleasant fennel-like aromas. Do not use smell as the only identifying characteristic! I have smelled poisonous groundsel roots, Senecio triangularis, that have the musky bouquet of Valerian, Valeriana sitchensis. Perhaps the fact that the Senecio was growing in a mat of Valeriana had something to do with it.

The best way to tell these three plants apart is by seed. Botanists use the different seed characteristics to identify species in this family, as often the flowers alone are not enough to tell them apart. Daucus has armed seeds, in other words, they have bristles and prickles that are easily seen (and easily attached to wool sweaters). Cicuta and Conium have unarmed seeds.

One last Daucus field characteristic. It often has a few purple flowers in the center of the umbel (umbel-rella like flower arrangement). This unique item is the botanical bulls-eye that insures pollinating insects travel to the center of the umbel.

Never eat any plant that you do not have a positive ID for. Ask a local herbarium at your nearest college for help in proper identification.

Howie Brounstein
C & W Herbs

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