022. Conium maculatum. Common hemlock.

Botanical name: 

022. Conium maculatum. 022. Conium maculatum. C. Synonyma. Cicuta. Pharm. Lond. & Edin. Hal. Stirp. Helv. 766.
Cicuta major. Bauh. Pin. 160.
Cicuta vulgaris major, Park.933.
Cicutaria vulgaris. Clus. Hist. 2. 200.
Cicuta. Gerard, 1061. Raii Hist. vol. 1. 451. Synop. p. 215. Stoerck. Suppl.
Conium Maculatum. Scop. Flor. Carn. p. 207. Bergius Mat. Med. 192. Curtis Flor. Lond. Withering Bot. Arrang. 277. Relhan Flor. Cant. 112.
(greek), Graecor.

Class Pentandria. Ord. Digynia. L. Gen. Plant. 336.
Ess. Gen. Ch. Involucella dimidiata, subtriphylla. Fructus subglobosus, 5-striatus, utrinque crenatus.
Spec. Char. C. seminibus striatis.

The root is biennial, tapering, sometimes forked, eight or ten inches long, and about the thickness of a finger: the stalk is five or six feet high, round, shining, beset with brown and purplish specks; towards the top branched and striated; near the bottom about three inches in circumference, and covered with a bluish exudation, appearing like a fine powder: the lower leaves are very large, tripinnated, of a mining green colour, standing upon long, striated, concave footstalks, which proceed from the joints of the stem; the upper and smaller leaves are bipinnated, and placed at the divisions of the branches: the flowers are produced in umbels, which are both universal and partial, and composed of several striated radii. The universal involucrum [The calyx of umbelliferous plants is termed involucrum, and may be universal, partial, or proper, according as it is placed at the universal umbel, partial umbel, or flower.] consists of five or seven leaves, these are lanceolated, whitish at the margin, and bent downwards; the partial involucrum is composed of three or four leaves, which are placed on the outer side of the radial stalk; the petals are five, oval, white, and curl inwards at their points; the stamina are five, white, about the length of the corolla, and crowned with whitish antherae; the styles are two, filiform, inclining outwards, and terminated by round stigmata; the fruit is oval, striated, confiding of two irregularly hemispherical striated brownish seeds. This plant flowers in July, and is commonly found near dunghills and waste grounds. [The Hemlock is obviously distinguished from our other umbelliferous plants by its large and spotted stalk, by the dark and shining green colour of its bottom leaves, and particularly by their disagreeable smell when bruised, and which, according to Stoerck, resembles that of mice." Curt. Flor. Lond. The Chaerophyllum bulbosum has a spotted stem, but its swelled joints, and rough seeds, distinguish it from the hemlock.] It has a peculiar faint fetid smell, and a slight aromatic herbaceous, and somewhat nauseous taste. [Bergius. M. M. 194. Stoerck says, that the milky juice of the root is so extremely acrid and deleterious that a small drop or two of it being applied to his tongue produced great pain and swelling of that organ, and for some time deprived him of the power of speech.—In answer to this see note (g).]

The common resemblance of mot of the umbelliferous plants leads us to suspect, that they were very imperfectly distinguished by the ancients; for though the botanical description of the (greek), given by Dioscorides, applies in great measure to this plant, [Haller refers it to the Cicuta virosa.] yet it must be considered, that his description is without discrimination, and is, with a few exceptions, equally applicable to all the genera of plants composing the natural order of Umbelliferae: so that the accounts given of Cicuta by ancient writers, should be admitted with great caution. [The word Cicuta, with the ancients, seemed not indicative of any particular species of plant, but of poisonous vegetables in general. Vide Plinii Hist. Nat. L. 14. c. 5. L. 25. c. 13.] Whether this species of hemlock was the poison usually administered at the Athenian executions, and which deprived Athens of those great characters, Socrates and Phocion, we are at a loss to determine; [For further information on this subject, confult Steger Diss. de Cicuta Atheniensium. Ehrhart Diss. de Cicuta. Joannis Viventii de Cicuta comment.] but that it is a deleterious poison there cannot be a doubt, [Of the most decisive instances of its fatal effects, which have occurred in this country, is that related by the late Dr. Watson in the Phil. Transact. in which it is fully ascertained by him, that two Dutch soldiers, at Waltham Abby, were killed in a very short time by eating this plant. Other proofs of this sort are given by Heins, (Pharm. rat. p. 370) which happened to some boys at Dresden. Saml. rur Geschichte von Ober. Sachs. III. p. 221. Scaliger, Subtil. Exerc. 152. Amatus Act. Cur. 98. Cent. V. See also the cases mentioned by Wolf in Comment, lit. Nor. anno 1740 and 1749.—Wepser. Cicut. p. 71. 312. Brassavola Examen. omn. simp. We may also notice the following from Theophrastus, (L. IX. c. 17.) Thrasyas Mantineensis remedium a se inventum fuisse gloriabatur, qviod absque dolore vitam abrumperet, ex Cicuta & Papaveris succo mixtum, &c. vide Hal. Stirp. Helv. p. 338.— to which work we are obliged for many of the facts just recited. Although sheep and some other animals eat this plant with impunity, yet to many it is strongly poisonous. Three spoonfuls of the juice killed a cat in less than a quarter of an hour. Rozier, Tableau, tom. i. 1773. Upon opening those animals to which it proved fatal, inflammation of the stomach and intestines was discovered. Harder apiar. Obs. 24 & 25. Wepser cicut. p. 334. And we may here add, what we noticed formerly under Belladonna, that vinegar has been found the most useful in obviating the effects of this poison; and that by macerating or boiling this plant in vinegar, it becomes totally inert. (Do NOT trust this! -Henriette) Lindestolpe de venenis.] though some circumstances render it probable that it is less powerfully so than is generally imagined. [ Respecting the root of Hemlock, we have the following instances, shewing unequivocally that it does not possess any noxious power whatever. Ray relates, (Phil. Trans. XIX. vol. p. 634. that the skilful herbalist, Mr. Petiver, ate half an ounce of the root of Hemlock, and that Mr. Henly, in the presence of Mr. Petiver, swallowed three or four ounces, without experiencing any remarkable effect; and these facts seem confirmed by the later experiments of Mr. Alchorne and Mr. Timothy Lane, neither of whom perceived any sensible effect on eating this root. Mr. Curtis says, Mr. Alchorne "allures me, that he has tried this in every season of the year, and in most parts of our island, without finding any material difference: and Mr. T. Lane informs me, that he also, with great caution, made some experiments of the like kind, and in a short time found he could eat a considerable part of a root, without any inconvenience; after this he had some large roots boiled, and found them as agreeable eating at dinner with meat as carrots, which they in taste somewhat resembled; and as far as his experience, joined with that of others, informed him, the roots might be cultivated in gardens, and either eaten raw like celery, or boiled as parseneps or carrots." (Flor. Lond.) And Murray observes, Non tamen tantopere esse Conium reformidandum, ut quidam existimant, palet inde, quod etiam infantibus tenellis impune exhibitum, nee foetum affecerit sub matris graviditate datum, nee gravidam matrem, nee detrimentum attulerit largior et per protractius tempus, ad drachmas sex extracti usque supraque intra nychthemerum, usus. Stöerck, vide Murray, Ap. Med. vol. 1. p. 216.—Quin & exstant exempla vetustiora, ingestam herbam vel succum majori adeo quantitate subinde tam homines quam bruta impune tulisse. Sic Plinius caulem viridem comedi, Sextus Emperieus seminam producit, quae drachmam unam succi absque noxa cepit. Murray, l. c.] The symptoms produced by Hemlock, when taken in immoderate doses, are related by various authors, the principal of which have been collected by Haller and others, and stated in the following words: "Intus sumpta facit anxietates, cardialgias, vomitus, appetitum prostratum diuturnam, convulsiones, caecitatem, sopores," (l. c.) "vertiginem, dementiam, mortemque ipsam." Murray App. Med. vol. i. p. 215.

—Cicuta seems to have been, both by the Greek and Arabian physicians, very generally employed as an external remedy for tumours, ulcers, and cutaneous eruptions; it was also thought to have the peculiar power "frangere stimulum venereum;" [Aretaeus de Morb. Acut. L. 2. c, 11. Et incrementa mammarum & testium cohibere, Anaxilaus & Dioscorides.] and this circumstance is the more remarkable, as Stoerck, Bergius, and others, recommend its internal use for complaints of a contrary nature, and adduce proofs of its aphrodisiacal powers. [Impotentiam virilem sub usu Conii curatam observavi, in viro quodam plusquam quadrigenario, qui omnem erectionem penis perdidcrat, postinde tamen plures liberos procreavit. Bergius Mat Med. p. 195. — Dr. Cullen, however, never discovered its effects in this way.]

Baron Stoerck was undoubtedly the first physician, who brought Hemlock into repute as a medicine of extraordinary efficacy, by his publication in 1760; and his claim to this distinction is the stronger, as his facts only have since been able to support its reputation to any very considerable extent; nay it never succeeded so well as when under his own direction, or confined to the neighbourhood in which he resided, [The general inefficacy of Hemlock experienced in this country, induced physicians at first to suppose that this plant, in the environs of Vienna and Berlin, differed widely from ours, and this being stated to Dr. Stoerck, he sent a quantity of the extract, prepared by himself, to London, but this was found to be equally unsuccessful, and to differ in no respect from the English extract.] and to the practice of those physicians with whom he lived in habits of intimacy and friendship. [Collin, Locher, Quarin, Leber, &c.] To enumerate all the diseases in which he lets forth the powerful efficacy of Cicuta, in four successive books on the subject, would be to give a catalogue of most of the chronic diseases with which human nature is afflicted. And Bergius, though he experienced no advantage by employing in true cancerous affections, still recommends its use in "Ulcera sordida & siphilitica, Scabies, Morbi cutis, Gonorrhoea, Leucorrhcea, Phthisis, Impotentia virilis, Rheumatismus chronicus, Scrophula;" and he considers its Virtus to be "narcotica, resolvens, suppurationem promovens, diuretica." To estimate with precision the medicinal utility of Hemlock is no very easy task. Had Dr. Stoerck's publications upon this subject contained but few and less extraordinary proofs of its good effects in certain obstinate and painful diseases, the virtues of cicuta might have been held in greater estimation than they actually are: [That it should be of some estimation in many of the diseases, in which it is recommended by Stoerck, appears from the numerous authorities cited by Murray, who concludes with these words: "Et sic quidem in multis pertinacissimis morbis liquandi spissa, obstructa reserandi et sanginem depurandi, efficacia auxilio suit." l. c.] while those authors, who have as generally condemned this medicine as uniformly useless or dangerous, seem to have done it equal injustice. [Vide Andree's Observations on Stoerck's Pamphlet, anno 1761. Lange Diss. dubia Cicutae vexata. anno 1764. De Haen Epist. de cicuta, anno 1765. Bierken (Tal om Kreaftskador) who, with Bergius, says, that in all cancers it does mischief.] Although we have not in this country any direct facts, like those mentioned by Stoerck, proving that inveterate scirrhuses, cancers, ulcers, and many other diseases hitherto deemed irremediable, were completely cured by the Cicuta; we have, however the testimonies of several eminent physicians, shewing that some complaints, which had refilled other powerful medicines, yielded to Hemlock; [Among those we may mention the late Drs. Fothergill and Rutty. Vide Med. Obs. & Inquir. vol. 3.—also in the 5th vol. the former gives an account of painful affections of the face, which he attributes to cancerous acrimony, removed by the use of cicuta.— Dr. Cullen says, "I have found it in several cases (of cancer) to relieve the pains and mend the quality of the matter proceeding from the sore, and even to make a considerable approach towards healing it." Mat. Med. vol. 2. 266. Several others instance its good effects in glandular diseases, and Mr. Hunter commends its use in syphilis.] and that even some disorders, which, if not really cancerous, were at least suspected to be of that tendency, were greatly benefited by this remedy. In chronic rheumatisms, some glandular swellings, and in various fixed and periodical pains, the cicuta is now very generally employed; and from daily experience, it appears in such cases to be a very efficacious remedy. It has also been found of singular use in the chincough. [Dr. Butter on the Chincough.] We cannot therefore but consider this plant an important acquisition to the Materia Medica. Externally the leaves of hemlock have been variously applied with advantage to ulcers, indurated tumours, and gangrenes. Much has been said reflecting the variable nature of this plant, the time of collecting it, the part which ought to be preferred, and the bell manner of preparing it for medical use; but as these circumstances seem only to produce a mere variation in the strength of the medicine, we conceive such pharmaceutical inquiries to be of very little importance, requiring only a proportionate adjustment of the dose, which, under the direction of a skilful practitioner, will always be regulated by its effects only, beginning with a few grains of the extract or powder, and increasing it daily [This should also be attended to on recommencing with a fresh parcel of the medicine, as it may differ very materially from the former preparation used; of this Dr. Cullen gives a remarkable instance, strongly evincing the necessity of such a precaution, l. c.] till a slight vertigo or other symptoms manifest the sufficiency of the dose: and unless this method has been pursued, the medicine cannot be said to have had an efficient trial. "An extract from the seeds is said to produce giddiness sooner than that from the leaves. Hence, while both the London and Edinburgh Colleges have given a place to the succus spissatus cicutae, into the pharmacopoeia of the latter an extractum seminum cicutae is also introduced." [Duncan's Edin. New Dis.]

The powder of the dried leaves of Hemlock seems to act with more certainty, and is more to be depended upon than the extract; great caution however is required in drying and preserving these leaves. Dr. Withering recommends the following method, which appears to us extremely proper: "Let the leaves be gathered about the end of June, when the plant is in flower. Pick off the little leaves, and throw away the leaf stalks. Dry these selected little leaves in a hot sun, or in a tin dripping pan or pewter dish before the fire. Preserve them in bags made of strong brown paper, or powder them and keep the powder in glass vials, in a drawer or something that will exclude the light, for the light soon dissipates the beautiful green colour, and with its colour the medicine loses its efficacy. From 15 to 25 grains of this powder may be taken twice or thrice a day. I have found it particularly useful in chronic rheumatisms, and also in many of those diseases which are usually supposed to arise from acrimony. The nature of this book does not allow minute details of the virtues of plants, but I can assure the medical practitioner, that this is well worth his attention." Bot. Arrang. 2d Ed. p. 280.

Medical Botany, 1790-1794, was written by William Woodville, M. D., and illustrated by James Sowerby.