Let’s say you’re out for a late summer stroll, and you come across a patch of familiar-looking flowers with long, thin stems and tiny white flowers that grow together in round bunches. They appear to be Queen Anne’s lace—a flowering plant you’ve seen in floral arrangements and may have made crowns out of as a child.
But, they could also be poison hemlock, and that’s not a chance you want to take. Let’s take a look at the differences between Queen Anne’s lace and poison hemlock—an invasive species and currently spreading throughout the country.
What is poison hemlock?
Poison hemlock isn’t native to the United States, but has been growing throughout the country ever since someone brought it over from Europe in the 1800s to use as a decorative flower, according to the Michigan State University Extension. Unfortunately, any ornamental use for the plant is overshadowed by the fact that it’s an invasive species and toxic to humans, pets, livestock, and other animals.
The tricky part is that like other members of the carrot family, poison hemlock sprouts white umbrel flowers—groups of small flowers that grow together from multiple short stalks, and yes, resemble an umbrella. And out of all its family members, poison hemlock most closely resembles the wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne’s lace, and is also quite common.
How to tell the difference between poison hemlock and Queen Anne’s lace
Aside from looking alike, both poison hemlock and Queen Anne’s lace are biennials, and produce only leaves in their first year, then white flowers and thousands of seeds their second year, and then die. Now let’s look at the differences, courtesy of the Michigan State University Extension:
- Poison hemlock: June through August
- Queen Anne’s lace: July through September
- Poison hemlock: Hollow stems that are green with purple spotting
- Queen Anne’s lace: Solid green stems
- Poison hemlock: Hairless leaves
- Queen Anne’s lace: Fine hairs on leaves
- Poison hemlock: Has an unpleasant odor when crushed
- Queen Anne’s lace: Roots smell like carrots
- Poison hemlock: 6-10 feet tall at maturity
- Queen Anne’s lace: 1-2 feet tall at maturity
How poison hemlock can make you sick
Every part of the poison hemlock plant is toxic to humans (and animals) when ingested, the Michigan State University Extension explains. So definitely don’t eat it, and make sure kids know not to as well.
On top of that, the sap of poison hemlock contains a phototoxic compound that you don’t want to get on your skin, as it can cause ultra-sensitivity to UV light resulting in blisters after sun exposure. But luckily, it’s not a poison ivy situation, where lightly brushing up against the leaves can cause an awful reaction. Instead, the sap in a poison hemlock plant is only found inside the stem. Still, it’s a good idea to avoid touching it at all.