Cicuta maculata L.

Common Water Hemlock


CC = 5
CW = -5
MOC = 68

© SRTurner

Family - Apiaceae

Habit - Perennial forb with tuberous-thickened rootstock.

Stems - Ascending to erect, to 2 m, glabrous, glaucous, hollow with cross-paritions, sometimes purplish at nodes, simple to branching.

Cicuta_maculata_stem.jpg Stem and node.

© DETenaglia

Leaves - Alternate and sometimes basal, glabrous. Lower leaves long-petiolate, the blades to 40 cm long, broadly ovate or triangular-ovate, 2-3x pinnately compound. Upper leaves with shorter petioles, 1-2x pinnately compound or occasionally simple. Leaflets to 12 cm long, lanceolate, tapered at the base, occasionally with basal lobes, the margins sharply toothed, the lateral veins ending at the sinuses between teeth.

Cicuta_maculata_leaflet1.jpg Leaf adaxial.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_leaf2.jpg Leaf abaxial.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_leaflet2.jpg Leaflet abaxial. Lateral veins end in the notches between the marginal teeth.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_leaf.jpg Pressed leaf.

© DETenaglia

Inflorescence - Compound umbels, terminal and axillary, mostly long stalked. Involucre absent or less commonly of 1-4 bracts, these shorter than the rays, spreading to ascending at flowering, linear, with sharply pointed tips. Rays usually numerous, 1.5-6.5 cm long, often unequal in length. Involucel absent or more commonly of 3-7 bractlets, these mostly shorter than the flower stalks, linear to broadly lanceolate, with thin, white, papery margins, tapered to sharply pointed tips.

Cicuta_maculata_inflorescence2.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_involucre.jpg Involucre.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_involucel.jpg Involucel.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Numerous in each umbellet, on stalks 2-10 mm long. Sepals minute triangular teeth. Petals 5, white, obovate, margins deflexed, to 1.3 mm broad, 1.1 mm long, apiculate and inflexed at apex. Stamens 5, alternating with petals, erect to spreading. Filaments white, 1.2 mm long, glabrous. Anthers whitish, 0.2 mm long. Ovary inferior, 2-locular, glabrous. Styles 2, 0.1 mm long.

Cicuta_maculata_florets.jpg Florets.

© SRTurner

Fruits - Schizocarps 2.0-4.5 mm long, broadly oblong-elliptic in outline, flattened laterally, glabrous, dark brown to reddish brown with pale ribs, glabrous, the mericarps with 5 ribs, these blunt and somewhat corky.

Cicuta_maculata_fruits1.jpg Young fruits.

© SRTurner

Cicuta_maculata_fruits2.jpg Maturing fruits.

© SRTurner

Flowering - May - September.

Habitat - Sloughs, streambanks, pond margins, wet prairies, other wet areas.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - Numerous other members of the Apiaceae (hemlock/carrot family).

Other info. - This may be the most toxic vascular plant found in North America. It is fairly common throughout Missouri, and also ranges throughout the U.S. and Canada. The inflorescences appear similar to many other plants in the family. A key feature of this species is the lateral veins of the leaflets, which end at the notches between the teeth rather than at the tips of the teeth. This is clearly visible in the leaflets photo above, and it's a good character for identification. Note that the bracts subtending both the main umbel and the umbellets can be either present or absent.

The plant is said to have a pleasant licorice or anise scent when crushed, but contact should be avoided due to the possibility of skin absorption of toxins. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the roots, swollen lower stems, and new growth are considered the most toxic. The potency of the plant is such that children have been reportedly been fatally poisoned by using pea shooters or whistles fashioned from pieces of the stems or roots. Even individuals who recover from poisoning can suffer long term effects, such as retrograde amnesia and impaired cognition. The main toxins are acetylenic alcohols, with cicutoxin being one example. Interestingly, these are chemically very different from the alkaloids found in the closely related poison hemlock plant (Conium maculatum).

Infraspecific divisions have been revised since Steyermark's time. Currently, two varieties are recognized in Missouri: var. maculata and var. bolanderi (S. Watson) G.A. Mulligan. These differ in subtle aspects of the ridges on the fruit surfaces. The latter taxon is relatively rare.

Photographs taken off Hwy H, Shannon County, MO., 6-23-04 (DETenaglia); also at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, MO, 6-30-2008 and 8-28-2021, Otter Slough Conservation Area, Stoddard County, MO, 7-18-2009, and Busch Wildlife Area, St. Charles County, MO, 7-18-2013, and Pacific Palisades Conservation Area, St. Louis County, MO, 7-23-2020 (SRTurner).