Cicuta maculata Linnaeus

Remark The words or terms in red (actually dark orange) in the text are defined in a glossary.

aug_01_02f.gthmb can't be loaded. Cicuta maculata is a tall biennial or a short-lived perennial with a branching, hollow stem, except for partitions at the junction of the root and stem, and with cross-partitions at the nodes and many of these at the base of the stem. The stem are often lined or mottled with purple or solid purple. The plant can reach 9 feet tall. The partly tuberous roots have 2 to 8 oblong tubers which are 1.5 to 3 inches long and about 1/2 inch thick, is sweet-smelling; the tubers are made of hollow, horizontal chambers containing a yellow liquid that is deadly poisonous. Cut stems also exude a yellow, oily liquid. The stems and foliage are somewhat less poisonous than the roots. New growth begins from tubers as well as from seeds. The plant is native to North America.

Botanist recognize 4 varieties in the species:

and only the bolanderi variety is not found in Québec. The victorinii variety is an endemic species of the intertidal estuary of the Saint-Lawrence river.

Cicuta maculata belongs to the Apiaceae family.


In Latin, the word Cicuta is referred to by Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), 23 AD - 70 AD (he died on August 25, AD 79 during the famed eruption of Mount Vesuvius that also destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum), he was a naturalist and naval and military commander; he refers to the plant Anthriscum in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (25, 151) and has been identified as Conium maculatum (Poison Hemlock) the poison in the potion that killed Socrates. One paragraph of the book (XXV) describes the cicuta as follows :

draw_a.jpg can't be loaded.

Hemlock (Cicuta maculata), too, is a poisonous plant, rendered odious by the use made of it by the Athenian people, as an instrument of capital punishment: still, however, as it is employed for many useful purposes, it must not be omitted. It is the seed that is noxious, the stalk being eaten by many people, either green, or cooked in the saucepan. This stem is smooth, jointed like a reed, of a swarthy hue, often as much as two cubits in height, and branchy at the top. The leaves are like those of coriander, only softer, and possessed of a powerful odour. The seed is more substantial than that of anise, and the root is hollow and never used. The seed and leaves are possessed of refrigerating properties; indeed, it is owing to these properties that it is so fatal, the cold chills with which it is attended commencing at the extremities.

although I'm not sure that that the stalk might be eaten either green, or cooked in the saucepan, without impunity!

The word (Cicuta) is also referred to by Marcus Porcius Cato, Cato the Elder, (234 BC, Tusculum 149 BC) who was bred, after the manner of his Latin forefathers, to agriculture, to which he devoted himself when not engaged in military service. His book on running a farm, De Agri Cultura (On Farming), his only work that survives completely, is a miscellaneous collection of rules of husbandry and management including sidelights on the Roman country life in the 2nd century BC.

But the scientific name of Hemlock is Conium and is derived the Greek word χωνειον (khôneion) and is referred to, in Latin, as Conium, by Saint Ambrose (born between 337 and 340 AD., died on the 4th of April 397). He was a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the fourth century. He refers to the word in his Hexaemeron (commentaries on the Old Testament).

So there was some mix-up in choosing the proper genus name for Cicuta maculata and for Conium maculatum in reference to classical sources ! But since both are quite poisonous...

In Latin, macula means stain, blotch and maculatus is the past participle of the verb maculare that means to stain; the epithet refers then to to the purple mottling of the stems of Cicuta maculata.

Common names

Some of the vernacular names of Beaver Poison, Children's-bane, Common Water-hemlock, Cowbane, False Parsley, Muskratweed, Musquash root, Musquash-root, Poison Hemlock, Poison Parsnip, Snakeroot, Spotted Cowbane, Spotted Hemlock, Water Hemlock, and Spotted Water-hemlock. Its French names are Cicutaire maculée and Carotte à Moreau.


Cicuta maculata, in its four varieties, has also been known as:


draw_b.jpg can't be loaded.

The distinctive features of Cicuta maculata are:

Several species in the Apiaceae family are similar :



The veins on the leaflets end at the notches on the leaflets margins, between the teeth rather than in teeth tips which is unusual in plants.

The caterpillars of Papilio polyxenes asterias (the Black Swallowtail) feed on the foliage in spite of its toxicity. The foliage and roots are usually left undisturbed by mammalian herbivores, although cattle and other livestock sometimes eat this plant with fatal results.


draw_c.jpg can't be loaded.

The exposed nectar of the flowers attracts primarily insects with short mouthparts, such as flies and wasps. Other flower-visitors include short-tongued bees, small butterflies, and beetles. Highly unusual wasps visit the flowers, wasps from the :



Cicuta maculata is found in wet to moderate moisture, in meadows, wet pastures, or in woods, in marshes, in swamps or on the edges of ponds and lakes or along stream banks, or in roadside ditches. Cicuta maculata prefers moister locations than the introduced Conium maculatum, the two species rarely competing with each other for the same ecological niche.


map_na.jpg can't be loaded.

Cicuta maculata is found over most of the Canadian provinces and most of the USA states. It is also found the the Mexico states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Tabasco. The map shows the Canadian provinces and USA states where the plant can be found.


Cicuta maculata is considered the most violently toxic plant in North America. Humans and all classes of livestock are susceptible to poisoning and death after ingesting plant material. Most cases occur in the springtime, since the plant may be eaten in spring when other forage unavailable. Animals have been poisoned by drinking water contaminated with trampled plant material. Caution should be used when manipulating and removing plants.

The toxin is concentrated in the rootstock in the spring. Later during the growing season, the roots contain less toxin, and the leaves and stems contain sufficient chemical to cause lethal poisoning. The pithy area between the stem nodes contains a greenish-yellow oil which contains the toxins. The poisons are cicutoxin and cicutolare, neurotoxins that are very poisonous alkaloid and resinoid. Toxicity decreases through the growing season, and the toxicity of above-ground parts may be negligible when dry. The roots however are toxic at all times, even when dry.

The onset of symptoms in humans is often so sudden and traumatic that treatments are not always successful. The symptoms are similar in all cases of poisoning: salivation, muscular spasms, violent convulsions, coma, and death from asphyxiation. Death can occur within 15 minutes to 2 to 3 h after a lethal dose. If ingested, a piece of the tuber the size of a pea is enough to cause death.

Animals exhibit nervous symptoms because of the toxin, which is a convulsant. Trembling motions are followed by convulsions. In addition, frothing at the mouth, chewing movements of the mouth and vomiting may be seen. The eyes are widely dilated and the temperature is elevated. Death occurs from respiratory failure.

draw_d.jpg can't be loaded.

Cicuta maculata was used by native North American tribes for its toxicity, but also as medicine!

The Cherokees used it in ceremonial medicine; the roots were chewed, and if dizziness occurred the person would die soon, if not, it would live a long life! They also chewed the roots for four consecutive days as a contraceptive to become sterile forever which is what happens when your are dead! They also used an infusion of roots to soak corn before planting them in order to repel insect pests (a natural insecticide?).

The Crees used powdered dried roots for a liniment and applied it externally.

The Iroquois made a poultice of smashed roots to cure lameness, running sores or cuts. They also used the plant as disinfectant, to wash the floor prevent disease. They would use a decoction on bruises, sprains, sore joints or broken bones. They chewed the roots commit suicide.

The Klamath mixed the roots with rattlesnake poison or decomposed animal liver to poison arrows.

The Ojibwas used the roots in hunting medicine in order to attract dears near enough to shoot them with bow and arrow.

The Chippewas mixed the seeds with tobacco and smoked the results.

The Paiutes made a poultice of roasted roots, applied it for ordinary swellings, to rheumatic joints, and to deaden muscular pain; they would also apply a poultice of pulped root to rattlesnake bites.

The Shoshonis used a decoction of roots as a wash for sore eyes.

The Seminoles used a decoction of roots and stems as a bath for high fevers.


The photos of the gallery were taken either with one of the following: Minolta DiMAGE 7, Canon PowerShot A530, Canon Xt Rebel, usually with the EF-S60mm f/2.8 Macro USM objective, Fujifilm A 610 and EPSON Perfection 1650 (scanner).

The title in the window shows the date when the picture was taken, i.e. jan_30_06... would mean that the photo was taken on the 30th of January, the 06 is for the 6th picture taken that day. The month, day and picture number might be followed by a letter which I use to identify the system used to take the picture.

Click on the thumbnails to get larger view. The original photos are usually in TIFF format, the photos shown are generally in JPEG format, often of dimensions one half (surface one quarter) for loading time reduction.


july_11_07.mthmb cannot be loaded. july_11_08.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_01_02f.mthmb cannot be loaded.


july_11_06.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_27_01s.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_27_02s.mthmb cannot be loaded.

The leaves of the two pictures on the right were scanned at 300 dpi, and the dimensions of the resulting picture divided by 2 (area divided by 4); this allows to measure the dimensions of the leaves.


july_11_05.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_01_06c.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_01_08c.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_01_07c.mthmb cannot be loaded.

Fruits, seeds

aug_27_01c.mthmb cannot be loaded. aug_27_04c.mthmb cannot be loaded. sep_23_02c.mthmb cannot be loaded.
sep_23_01c.mthmb cannot be loaded. sep_23_03c.mthmb cannot be loaded.