Extremely toxic, poison hemlock has white flowers, purple splotches on stems and is growing profusely in many areas of the City of Salmon Arm.-Image credit: Sarah Weaver Sporting delicate looking yellow flowers, wild parsnip lines the Turner Creek Trail between Sixth Avenue and 24th Street NE.-Image credit: Sarah Weaver

Pretty but potentially deadly

Poison hemlock grows in parks, on trails and in parking lots

Flowers are in bloom throughout the city.

While many of them are beautiful, some of them are a front for dangerous toxins.

Longtime environmentalist and secretary of the Gardom Lake Stewardship Society, Sarah Weaver is sounding the alarm on two pretty but potentially deadly plants – poison hemlock and wild parsnip.

Poison hemlock has a white flower and wild parsnip has yellow flowers.

The City of Salmon Arm has temporarily blocked off Turner Creek Trail between Sixth Avenue NE and 24th Street NE after Weaver advised them of the profusion of both plants on that section of the trail.

She says there is also a proliferation of poison hemlock at the bottom of the trail near the Podollan Inn.

In a recent email to the city, Weaver also reported the presence of poison hemlock in and around city parks.

“I am particularly concerned about the amount of the plant growing adjacent to frequently used areas of Marine Park,” she wrote, noting while attending a car show, she observed a family playing catch in the area. “On several occasions, children ran close to the poison hemlock to retrieve balls.”

Dr. Ken Marr, curator of botany at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, says poison hemlock is very toxic.

“If it’s ingested, it can cause respiratory arrest and death,” he says, recalling an incident in Victoria in 2002 or 2003 when a person who liked to experiment with plants, boiled it up and served it to himself and his wife. ”After an hour, their mouths were numb and after five hours he was in respiratory failure.”

Marr says if the man had not cooked, thereby reducing the toxicity, the couple likely would have died.

“It’s something to really be concerned about; people should not put any part of it in their mouths.”

To some, poison hemlock looks like Queen Anne’s lace but Marr says Queen Anne’s lace is very hairy.

The distinguishing feature that identifies the plant as poison hemlock is purple, irregular splotches on the stems.

Both poison hemlock and wild parsnip are in the carrot family and the chemicals in the sap are photoactivated – changed by sunlight.

If a person gets sap on their skin, it will undergo a chemical change and the skin will blister – similarly for animals if it comes in contact with bare parts such as their noses.

Poison hemlock grows along fence lines, in irrigation ditches, and in other moist, waste places. It may be two to three metres tall.

Whistles made from hollow stems of poison hemlock have caused death in children.

“Children sometimes pick flowers as part of their games,” writes Weaver. “It would be devastating if a child were to accidentally succumb to the effects of this extremely toxic plant.”

Wild parsnip is another invasive but attractive plant with a sinister side.

A non-native weed that hails originally from Europe and Asia, wild parsnip grows in large patches or as scattered plants along roadsides, in abandoned fields or pastures.

The plant contains chemicals in the juices of its green leaves, stems and fruits that can cause an intense, localized burning.

“I realize that spraying is not an option because of the proximity of the lake, and removal is hazardous because of the plant’s toxicity,” wrote Weaver in her letter to the city. “I also realize that city budgets are very tight, and invasive plants are widespread. However, the extreme toxicity of this plant, coupled with the popularity of Marine Park, makes me think this area should receive special consideration.”

Rob Hein, manager of Roads and Parks for the city, says he has been unable to get in touch with anyone in the Columbia Shuswap Invasive Species Society and is hoping to contact them on Monday.

“We’re concerned, especially with this one, where people going through there all the time, but I have the same concern for our workers and am looking for some background help,” he said of the trail between 6th Avenue and 24th Street NE. “Our guys aren’t trained on it any better than anybody. These plants haven’t been disturbed by us so hopefully nobody goes in there.”

Hein acknowledges the poison hemlock is in so many areas of the city that the issue needs to be addressed.

barbbrouwer@saobserver.net

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