Poison hemlock is known to be a native of Europe and was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in the 1800s Since that time this aggressive plant has been extremely successful in distributing itself throughout most of North America. It is now widespread throughout most counties in Kentucky. Although poison hemlock is often associated with areas that have moist soil conditions, it can also survive in dry sites.
Description: Poison hemlock is classified as a biennial that reproduces only by seed. It is capable, however, of completing its life cycle as a winter annual in Kentucky if it germinates early during the fall months. Flowers and new seed are typically produced in late May and June. Although plants emerge as a cluster of leaves that form a large rosette, poison hemlock is most noticeable at this stage of growth in early spring with its parsley-like leaves which are highly dissected or fern-like. The individual leaves are shiny green and triangular in appearance. As the plant begins to send up flower stalks, the leaves are alternately arranged on the main stem. Each individual leaf is pinnately compound with several pairs of leaflets that appear along opposite sides of the main petiole. As the plant matures, poison hemlock can grow upwards to about 6 to 8 feet tall. At maturity the plant is erect, often with multi-branched stems, and forming a deep taproot. Poison hemlock has hollow stems which are smooth with purple spots randomly seen along the lower stem that help distinguish it from other plants similar in appearance. The flowers, when mature, are white and form a series of compound umbels (an umbrella-shaped cluster of small flowers) at the end of each terminal stalk.
Toxicity: All classes of livestock are known to be affected by poison hemlock. Cattle, horses, and goats are considered to be the most susceptible domestic animals although other animals can be affected as well. Symptoms of poisoning can occur rapidly anywhere within 30 minutes to two hours depending on the animal, quantity consumed, and other factors. Initial symptoms can include nervousness, trembling, muscular weakness and loss of coordination, dilation of pupils, coma, and eventually death from respiratory paralysis. Lethal doses for cattle are considered to be in the range of 0.2 to 0.5 percent of the animal's body weight. Poison hemlock is also known to cause fetal deformation when pregnant animals consume the plant.
Fortunately most animals tend to avoid grazing poison hemlock if other forage is readily available. However, animals may be more prone to consume green plants during the late winter and early spring when other forage species are more limited. All parts of the plant, including the seeds, are considered to contain the toxic principles (coniine and coniceine). Toxicity may be somewhat reduced in dried plants, but the potential for toxicity still exists, particularly when a sufficient quantity is consumed in dried hay. Therefore, extreme caution should be considered before feeding animals hay known to contain poison hemlock.
Control-The principle control strategy for poison hemlock is to prevent seed production which can be a challenge since a fully mature plant is capable of producing 35,000 to 40,000 new seeds. It is too late to utilize herbicide control methods after plants have produced flowers. Therefore, mechanical control efforts (if feasible) such as mowing or cutting down individual plants should be initiated just before peak flower production to avoid or reduce the amount of new seed being produced. Make note of areas heavily infested with poison hemlock this spring and begin to look for emergence of new plants in the fall. During the late fall (November) or early spring (March) is the best time of year for herbicide treatment. In grass pastures and hayfields herbicide products containing 2,4-D can be effective when applied to young, actively growing plants in the rosette stage of growth. Spot treatments with products containing 2,4-D, triclopyr, or glyphosate can also be used depending on the location.