Why Poisonous Hemlock is My Plant Ally

In Herbalism school they taught us a few things about the more ethereal side of plants. Some, like my hubby, call those things ‘woo woo.’ I romantically call it a modern version of ancient wisdom. Part of this wisdom is something called plant allies. A plant ally is a plant –any plant– that is good medicine for what ails you specifically as a person. It is akin to having a spirit animal –a member of the animal kingdom that most conveys your soul. This spirit animal could be a deer, wolf, bear, hawk, or in my case –a chihuahua! Your spirit animal has some life lesson to teach you by its inherent nature. (Does that mean I need to learn to bark more?)

Our plant ally is a window into ourselves –be it our endearing or our quirky parts.

I’ve always been a bit on the woo woo side when it comes to medicine and healing. As my proud husband announced to our wedding guests while toasting: ‘You all know that I’m marrying a gypsy.’  Well, I may or may not have coerced my hubby into consuming whole garlic cloves a time or two as a quick cold & flu remedy. But guys –garlic is a broad spectrum antibiotic and it costs pennies! 

So, it’s no wonder that this gypsy soul lauds plants’ innate wisdom as a facilitator to activate something deep within us. Plant allies serve us not only on a physical level but on an emotional and spiritual level. Plant allies might be chosen by you or they may actually choose you. Say what?

Let’s say that everywhere you go you always see pine trees. Maybe you even feel a sort of subconscious draw to the tree. It could be the tree’s fresh spring green buds, or maybe it’s the subtle smell of its bark. The idea is that this plant continually calling to you could very well be your plant ally. Have we hit the woo woo meter limit yet?!

Once identified, the goal is to incorporate this ally and its medicine into your life. For example, you could harvest some of the pine tree’s fresh buds and concoct a tea or honey infusion. You then consume your plant ally on a regular basis as a source of medicine and communion. Creating a ritual around your plant ally is also a smart move as rituals help to deepen a level of connection. It can be as simple as saying an affirmation each time you drink your pine needle tea. Consuming your plant ally is just one way to make your connection stick & get that deeper level of plant medicine. You could also simply choose to sit quietly next to your chosen plant ally and breathe deeply.

In a sea of catnip, be a poppy.

As an herbalist I am of course always on the lookout for plants –identifying, touching & smelling them, wondering what sort of medicine they might offer, trying to remember how to spell their Latin names. I often have to catch myself and come out of my ‘plant trance’ as I walk the city streets with my head down eagerly eyeing all of the plants like a kid in a candy story. So it stands to reason that I certainly note the patterns of plants that seem to show their face to me constantly. Which brings me to this curious recognition: 

Poisonous Hemlock has been making a regular appearance for me lately. 

Naturally I am thinking that this is a bit crazy –what does hemlock want from me; what does hemlock have to teach me? My herbalist mind has drawn the conclusion that this plant wants to be a teacher of sorts for me –an ally. Which begs the question: of all plants to resonate with why a lethal plant?

Poisonous hemlock,  Conium maculatum, is famous for not the most romantic of reasons. Socrates is a famous victim of hemlock poisoning; in ancient Greece the hemlock plant was used to poison prisoners. This lethal plant doesn’t even have the courtesy of appearing like a dangerous plant. It is actually in the same family as wild carrots, Apiaceae, and therefore as its cousin, masquerades almost like an edible plant with cute, delicate white flowers that erupt in Summertime. It grows well in damp areas, along rivers or creeks, where children and pets might also like to frolic. Any part of the plant ingested could have fatal results thanks to its primary alkaloid constituent, coniine, which acts on your central nervous system and irreparably causes your respiratory functions to go defunct. 

Hemlock on Denver’s Cherry Creek bike path.

What is my lesson Mrs. Hemlock? Reveal to me what your wisdom wants to convey! 

My three big lessons for honoring poisonous hemlock as my plant ally.

1. Face Your Shadow

I’ve heard from more than one wise soul that when we are being chased by a dragon, the best advice is to stop running, turn, and face it. Naturally most of us have gotten into the habit of running away from those things that scare us –including our emotions. Dark emotions are not fun for most of us. But the ‘turn & face it’ advice makes a lot of sense really. Our shadow diminishes ever so little just by altering our stance. Getting curious and inquiring about the scary nature of our deepest rooted feelings and habits can actually free us. 

Hemlock can be akin to a big, ugly monster that we’d rather run away from as quickly as possible. But by stopping to reflect on this plant it becomes clear that the only way we will be in danger is if we choose to consume the plant. Merely reflecting on its beautiful umbrella-like leaves that provide shade for tiny insects below is harmless. We still get to choose to not take the poison. Life is full of these choices. 

Note the purple/red stained stocks. An easy way to identify hemlock.

This past year has been particularly difficult for me. I’ve had many ups and downs personally & professionally (saving that for another blog post) that have pushed me to my limits. I have taken the opportunity to slow down and reflect on my circumstances and dig deeper into the seemingly ‘negative’ labels I’ve chosen for certain outcomes. I have found that when I have the courage to pull back the layers and aerate my fears I am slowly able to release and move forward. The darkness no longer owns me because I can see it for what it is: a tool.

Hemlock shows us that our ups & downs, our perceived goods & bads, are merely tools for doing our greatest work: being a decent human being.

     2.  Discernment is Key

On one occasion this Summer, after I had discovered my newfound affinity I was hiking above Santa Monica when I saw a field of –you guessed it –hemlock. I scurried over with my camera in hand & a smirk on my face. It’s YOU! Again! I reached out to touch its leaves and smell the dainty white flowers. After snapping a few photos my mind started reeling –this hemlock is so small though. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s growing here in the desert. It must not get much water so it can’t grow very tall. Wait. Hemlock’s typical home is near water. Maybe this is just baby hemlock I ventured a guess. 

I happily strolled on, continuing my hike, photos locked into my phone for proof that this plant was stalking me and just for good measure, a message in to my herbalism teacher to confirm that my plant identification was correct. Fast forward to later that day when I heard back from my teacher: ‘That’s probably some kind of carrot or sweet Sicily.’ Oh, duh. Hemlock is in the Apiaceae family which also boasts wild carrots, fennel, and other edible plants. In my hurry to shove this plant in a box I had missed the mark. 

Is that you Hemlock?

Cultivating discernment in our lives is a really freaking important skill. In an age of information overload it’s easy to lose site of what we really know to be true. It’s imperative that we slow down in order to utilize our inner processing to come to the right conclusion. Haphazardly slapping labels on everything, including our experiences and emotions, rips us off in a big way.

Taking the time to look more deeply, reflect, ask difficult questions and give ourselves some time ensures that we can make choices out of our own integrity. 

     3.  We Are All One 

The idea that ‘I am Me’ & ‘You are You’ is a very normal human idea that most of us never actually question. The problem is that this level of thinking is also quite fixed and makes it very easy for us to hurt one another.  Yet at a very basic level we all breathe the same air, walk on the same earth, are primarily comprised of oxygen, nitrogen & carbon, and most of us are going through life simply trying to create happiness for ourselves and our loved ones. Not all that different when you get down to it. 

Hemlock arrived in the plant kingdom hosting a primary constituent that is lethally poisonous. However, hemlock also sprouts beautiful little flowers & when prepared correctly (NOT recommending that anyone do this) can serve to curb coughs, calm insect bites & aid sleep. Hemlock grows in bounty across the United States & uses the same process of photosynthesis that all other plants use. Hemlock does not wake up each day in judgment of itself that it is a toxic plant, rather it basks in the sun, soaks up water & flowers just like a rose. 

Resistance is futile. One day some time ago I came into work and said hello to a colleague whom I’d only met three times maximum. She strolled past my desk and then turned to me and said: ‘By the way, my son is making kombucha now. Do you have a good recipe he could use?’ I don’t remember what my reply was but I do remember later reflecting on this and feeling a bit shocked. How would this almost stranger know that I was into fermentation? I had never mentioned kombucha or any other health food to her before today. Then it struck me –once a hippie, always a hippie. We can do our best cover up but at the end of the day, we are who we are. Just like my husband announcing my ‘gypsy-ness’ to our wedding guests. 

We all are aiming to sleep comfortably at night, to have more joy than sorrows, to learn to grow up in our human existence. There is much we cannot control but so much we can. 

everything-is-connected_orig

If we’re talking about plant medicine here, hemlock has no shortage of nourishing teachings. Perhaps our greatest lesson from hemlock is that everything and everyone is our ally.

My favorite Buddhist, Pema Chodron, puts it another way: “If we do decide to start surrendering to our uncontrollable situation and letting go of resistance and resentment, we will have no shortage of opportunities to learn and grow. Our world, no matter how crazy and unreasonable it gets, will become our greatest teacher and ally.”

Those yogis are onto something. Namaste.

Lorissa aka ‘Miss Riss’    

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