Friday, 15 May 2015

Hemlock - Achtung! Sehr sehr giftig!

A sunny Springtime and an ideal time for us to get on our bikes and explore Brandenburg. We had an enjoyable 43 km cycle around Cottbus SE of Berlin and the artificial lakes around Peitz (the so-called Teichland). There might be another post about that journey, but for the moment I want to reflect on how beautiful and yet how dangerous the flora of the countryside is. In particular, the banks of the lakes were festooned in young green plants displaying frothy white umbels of flowers.

They evoke a warming feeling that Spring has at last arrived, and yet how many people wandering or cycling past them know what plant these are?

These joyful flowers actually belong to the deadly hemlock plant (conium maculatum), one of Europe's most poisonous plants. You may recall that the Greek philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by drinking a deconcotion of hemlock root, a deadly meal called 'Devil's porridge'. It is a plant associated with witchcraft, Hecate, and evil. In Shakespeare's Macbeth it is referred to as the insane root (Banquo, after he and Macbeth met the three witches for the first time: 'Have we bitten on the insane root?).

In German hemlock is called Gefleckter Schierling (spotted hemlock, due to the purple-spotted stems on mature plants), and colloquially as Giftpetersilie and Krottenpetersilie (poisonous and rotten parsley respectively, due to the similarity of the leaves to that culinary herb), Mäuseschierling and Stinkender Schierling (mice and fetid hemlock, due to its smell), and most pertinently Tollkerbel and Tollkraut (mad chervil and mad herb - toll might be an adjective used to mean 'amazing', but its past use is as 'insane' or 'stunning').

So, the moral is to enjoy the countryside by all means, but don't mess with the flora or it may mess with you - permanently!

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