By: Gabe Garms
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the deadliest plants in North America and can be fatal if just a small amount is ingested. It has been in flower here in Washington for the last month or so and can be found across much of the United States. It grows (often in dense patches) along roads, trails and the edges of fields and streams. I actually have it growing in my back yard, right along side one of it's most common look-a-likes, Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota).
Queen Anne's lace is a wild edible (the root) and given that it typically does grow in the same conditions as poison hemlock, being able to tell the difference could save your life. Plus, you'll want to know if you have it growing on your property because it's also toxic to pets and livestock. So let's walk through how to identify both so that you can confidently identify them in the future.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) vs. Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota):
1. Both are in the Apiaceae family and have hollow stems, but poison hemlock's stem is hairless and has purple blotches. Even a very young poison hemlock will display the purple blotching. On the other hand, the stem of Queen Anne's lace doesn't have purple blotches and is hairy. See the photos below for a comparison.
2. The flowers of both species are white and bloom in an umbrella shape pattern (called an umbel). Plants in the Apiaceae family have flowers that appear in compound umbels, which means that all of the little umbrellas branch out from one main, central umbrella - if that makes sense. If it doesn't, don't worry about it. Just know that the flowers of Queen Anne's lace have a single purplish/red flower in the center of the umbel the vast majority of the time (see picture below left). Legend has it that Queen Anne pricked her finger while sewing the lace and a droplet of blood fell to the center of the flowers. Also the umbrella shape of Queen Anne's lace is flat-topped, while the poison hemlock umbel is more rounded. Notice the difference below.
3. The leaves are probably the most difficult feature to distinguish between the two. While they are both fern-like in appearance, the leaves of Queen Anne's lace, similar to the stems, will also have hairs on their undersides. See in picture below to the right.
4. A final distinguishing feature is that Queen Anne's lace has 3-pronged bracts appearing at both the base of the flowers and the main umbel. It's actually the only member of the Apaiceae family that has this feature. If you look at the picture of the poison hemlock flowers under #2 above, you'll see that poison hemlock is absent of the long bracts.
Hopefully, you'll now be able to identify both plants when you encounter them in the wild. And if you can, please pass this information along. It may just save the life of a loved one or pet. Thanks for reading!