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Poison hemlock, a non-regulated Class B noxious weed, is a widespread toxic biennial plant in the Carrot Family often found in open sunny areas, fields, vacant lots, and on roadsides. Eating even a small amount of any part of this plant can kill people, livestock, and wildlife.

Identification and Look-Alikes

Poison-hemlock flowering - click for larger image

Poison-hemlock stems have reddish or purple spots and streaks, are not hairy, and are hollow. Leaves are bright green, fern-like, finely divided, toothed on edges and have a strong musty odor when crushed. Flowers are tiny, white and arranged in small, umbrella-shaped clusters on ends of branched stems.

Poison-hemlock is a biennial and germinates throughout the year. First year plants are low-growing and may overwinter in mild climates. Young poison-hemlock plants somewhat resemble carrot plants, but can be distinguished by the lack of hairs on the stems and the purple-reddish blotches on the stems.

In late spring, second-year plants reach 6-10 feet tall and produce numerous umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny, white, 5-petaled flowers. Flowering poison-hemlock may be confused with wild carrot (Daucus carota, or Queen Anne's Lace). In contrast with poison-hemlock, wild carrot has one densely packed umbrella-shaped flower cluster on a narrow, hairy stem, usually with one purple flower in the center of the flower cluster, and is usually 3 feet tall or less. Wild carrot also flowers later in the summer.

Toxicity

poison-hemlock flowers - click for larger image

Poison-hemlock is acutely toxic to people and animals, with symptoms appearing 20 minutes to three hours after ingestion. All parts of the plant are poisonous and even the dead canes remain toxic for up to three years. The amount of toxin varies and tends to be higher in sunny areas.  Eating the plant is the main danger, but it is also toxic to the skin and respiratory system. When controlling poison-hemlock, minimize exposure by wearing gloves and taking frequent breaks when pulling or mowing large amounts of plants. One individual had a severe reaction after pulling plants on a hot day because the toxins were absorbed into her skin.

The typical symptoms for humans include dilation of the pupils, dizziness, and trembling followed by slowing of the heartbeat, paralysis of the central nervous system, muscle paralysis, and death due to respiratory failure. For animals, symptoms include nervous trembling, salivation, lack of coordination, pupil dilation, rapid weak pulse, respiratory paralysis, coma, and sometimes death.  For both people and animals, quick treatment can reverse the harm and typically there aren’t noticeable aftereffects. If you suspect poisoning from this plant, call for help immediately because the toxins are fast-acting – for people, call 911 or poison-control at 1-800-222-1222 or for animals, call your veterinarian.

Legal status in King County, Washington

This widespread Class B noxious weed is found throughout Washington. It is on the Non-Regulated Noxious Weed List for King County, Washington and control of poison-hemlock in King County is recommended but not required. For more information about noxious weed regulations and definitions, see Noxious weed lists and laws.

The King County Noxious Weed Control Board encourages property owners to remove poison-hemlock where possible and to avoid introducing it to new landscapes. 

What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington

Poison-hemlock leaves - click for larger image

If you find poison-hemlock, please notify the property owner or residents if possible and report it on our Report-a-Weed form. Property owners in King County are not required to control poison-hemlock, but we do encourage control where possible, especially where people may encounter it accidentally. Especially if you notice poison-hemlock on public property where people are growing food or collecting wild plants, please notify the property manager or agency in charge as soon as possible. This is especially important in p-patch or community gardens where new gardeners or newcomers to our area may be unfamiliar with this plant. If you are unsure about who to contact, we can help (email us). 

Additional information on poison-hemlock

En español

Cicuta (Poison-hemlock) folleto informativo (información sobre identificación y control) (pdf 1.62 Mb)

Poison-hemlock photos

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Young poison hemlock plant
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Report poison-hemlock in King County, Washington

Related information

Related agencies


Program offices are located at 201 S. Jackson St., Suite 600, Seattle, WA 98104. To contact staff, see the Noxious Weed Control Program Directory, send an email, or call 206-477-WEED (206-477-9333).