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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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HEMLOCK (in 0. Eng. hemlic or hymlice; no cognate is found in any other language, and the origin is unknown), the Conium maculatum of botanists, a biennial umbelliferous plant, found wild in many parts of Great Britain and Ireland, where it occurs in waste places on hedge-banks, and by the borders of fields, and also widely spread over Europe and temperate Asia, and naturalized in the cultivated districts of North and South America. It is an erect branching plant, growing from 3 to 6 ft. high, and emitting a disagreeable smell, like that of mice. The stems are hollow, smooth, somewhat glaucous green, spotted with dull dark purple, as alluded to in the specific name, maculatum. The root-leaves have long furrowed footstalks, sheathing the stem at the base, and are large, triangular in outline, and repeatedly divided or compound, the ultimate and very numerous segments being small, ovate, and deeply incised at the edge. These leaves generally perish after the growth of the flowering stem, which takes place in the second year, while the leaves produced on the stem became gradually smaller upwards. The branches are all terminated by compound many-rayed umbels of small white flowers, the general involucres consisting of several, the partial ones of about three short lanceolate bracts, the latter being usually turned towards the outside of the umbel. The flowers are succeeded by broadly ovate fruits, the mericarps (half-fruits) having five ribs which, when mature, are waved or crenated; and when cut across the albumen is seen to be deeply furrowed on the inner face, so as to exhibit in section a reniform outline. The fruits when triturated with a solution of caustic potash evolve a most unpleasant odour.

Hemlock is a virulent poison, but it varies much in potency according to the conditions under which it has grown, and the season or stage of growth at which it is gathered. In the first year the leaves have little power, nor in the second are their properties developed until the flowering period, at which time, or later on when the fruits are fully grown, the plant should be gathered. The wild plant growing in exposed situations is to be preferred to garden-grown samples, and is more potent in dry warm summers than in those which are dull and moist.

The poisonous property of hemlock resides chiefly in the alkaloid conine or conia which is found in both the fruits and the leaves, though in exceedingly small proportions in the latter. Conine resembles nicotine in its deleterious action, but is much less powerful. No chemical antidote for it is known. The plant also yields a second less poisonous crystallizable base called conhydrine, which may be converted into conine by the abstraction of the elements of water. When collected for medicinal purposes, for which both leaves and fruits are used, the former should be gathered at the time the plant is in full blossom, while the latter are said to possess the greatest degree of energy just before they ripen. The fruits are the chief source whence conine is prepared. The principal forms in which hemlock is employed are the extract and juice of hemlock, hemlock poultice, and the tincture of hemlock fruits. Large doses produce vertigo, nausea and paralysis; but in smaller quantities, administered by skilful hands, it has a sedative action on the nerves. It has also some reputation as an alterative and resolvent, and as an anodyne.

The acrid narcotic properties of the plant render it of some importance that one should be able to identify it, the more so as some of the compound-leaved umbellifers, which have a general similarity of appearance to it, form wholesome food for man and animals. Not only is this knowledge desirable to prevent the poisonous plant being detrimentally used in place of the wholesome one; it is equally important in the opposite case, namely, to prevent the inert being substituted for the remedial agent. The plant with which hemlock is most likely to be confounded is Anthriscus sylvestris, or cow-parsley, the leaves of which are freely eaten by cattle and rabbits; this plant, like the hemlock, has spotted stems but they are hairy, not hairless; it has much-divided leaves of the same general form, but they are downy and aromatic, not smooth and nauseous when bruised; and the fruit of Anthriscus is linear-oblong and not ovate.

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Hemlock'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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