Friday, July 24, 2009

Killer Carrots Invade Local Town!

One of our local newspapers had an article today warning of encroaching populations of Giant Hogweed. The sap of this plant contains a chemical that, when illuminated by the sun or other sources of UV light, causes very serious inflammation, blistering and scarring of the skin. Any contact with this (up to 20 foot-tall!) plant is dangerous and even very slight eye exposure can result in blindness.

Hogweeds are a member of the carrot family, the Apiaceae. This family was formerly known as the "Umbelliferae," referring to their clusters of flowers, which arise from a common point, like an upside-down umbrella. This is one of those plant families that has taken spectacular advantage of its potential arsenal of chemical weapons. The Apiaceae contains both choice, highly-aromatic and flavorful crops, and dangerous poisonous weeds. Common Apiaceous crops include carrots, parsley, parsnips, celery, dill, caraway, fennel, coriander/cilantro and cumin. One of the most famous poisonous species is hemlock, an ingredient in Socrates' last cocktail (this is different than the tree). Often, very small morphological differences distinguish edible domesticated, edible wild, and poisonous wild species in this family.

My rural jogging route has been offering me some good opportunities to brush up on my knowledge of East Coast flora. So far, the main Apiaceous flowers in my local fields seem to be the edible wild carrot (aka Queen Anne's Lace) and wild parsnip. I'll post some pictures soon.


  1. I just read some debate on some discussion board the other day about whether or not the leafy tops of carrots are really poisonous to humans or not. There was one expert lady who said they were, but then all these other people said, well why is it an ingredient in all these recipes, and no one has died eating them yet?

  2. That's interesting. I wonder if toxicity varies with variety, age of the plant or sensitivity of the consumer (so that it's not always noticed)?

    This is supposedly true of a lot of members of the nightshade family (which is another frequently poisonous plant family that contains crops such as tomato, potato, pepper and eggplant).

  3. We get giant hogweed round here. It was introduced as an ornamental, and is usually about eight feet high, at least in our climate. The stuff spreads along strames and rivers; I've never seen it anywhere else.

  4. it IS a very dramatic plant but it's such a shame when ornamentals escape like that.

  5. Had to ID a water hemlock of the umbellifer variety which sadly some young fellows having had a cursory "course" in living off the land had mistaken for wild carrot. It was a fatal taxonomic mistake, so personal experimentation is not a good idea.

  6. I'm sorry to hear it but I agree - my mycologist phd mentor had similar experience with mushroom id.



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