I have never poisoned anyone. I recently learned that if I were to try, I would be very bad at it. The hemlock I thought was poisonous turns out to just have an unfortunate common name. And rather than brewing up a batch of tainted tonic, I would apparently make my intended victim an aromatic cup of tea loaded in Vitamin C.
While hiking around the Appalachians this past weekend, I spied tons of hemlock trees. “What a great post for October and Halloween… Hemlock!” I thought and pulled out my sketchbook.
Sketch done, I hopped online to find out just how this poisonous plant killed Socrates. Uh oh, wait… it’s a different hemlock?
Evidently, the poisonous hemlock is a small plant related to a carrot (Conium spp.). Not THIS hemlock (the Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis) which is a tree known for its wonderful aroma – a sweet, fruity pine-like scent.
Eastern hemlocks can be found from Nova Scotia and eastern Minnesota in the north, south to Maryland and Illinois. Their range then extends even further south along the Appalachian mountains into Georgia and northern Alabama. Hemlocks tend to occupy cool, humid places — in ravines, gorges and coves — as well as on north-facing hillsides and rocky outcrops.
And alas, there IS a scary tale to tell about the eastern hemlocks, albeit one that doesn’t involve poison. Small exotic pest insects called hemlock woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) have invaded hemlock groves throughout the Appalachians and on up the East Coast. The trees — with no resistance or help from natural enemies to keep the adelgids in check — typically succumb and die within a few years of infestation. They leave behind “gray ghosts,” pale skeletal remnants of the magnificent trees they once were.