IT is a rule sanctioned by the observations of medical botanists, that umbelliferous plants, which grow in or about the water, are of a poisonous nature. This rule will generally be found correct, although it has exceptions. As far as aquatic plants of this natural order have been examined, their properties, in a great majority of instances, have been found, more or less of a deleterious kind. The Cicuta virosa of Europe is a highly poisonous plant, possessing such formidable activity that its internal use is hardly attempted in medicine. An American species, the Cicuta maculata, the subject of this article, is very closely allied in its botanical habit to the European plant, and was equally deserving of suspicion from its appearance, although the public were not generally aware of its true character. Within a few years past several instances have been brought to light of fatal effects ensuing from this plant being incautiously eaten by children. It is therefore necessary that the species should be suitably designated, that a source of so much danger may be known and avoided.
The Cicuta maculata, to winch I have applied the name of American Hemlock, not having heard any common appellation except that of Snakeweed, inhabits wet meadows and banks, from the northern to the southern limits of the United States, flowering in July and August. It is so frequently cut with hay, among which it often grows in large quantities, that we might expect to see its deleterious properties operating on domestic cattle, were it not that their bodies are probably less susceptible of its poison than ours. The European Cicuta, above mentioned, is highly noxious to man, and to some domestic animals, yet goats and sheep eat it with impunity.
The genus Cicuta differs from other genera of umbellate plants in having no general involucre, a short, partial involucre, and a fruit which is nearly orbicular, compressed and furrowed [This description of the fruit agrees with the present species and also with Cicuta bulbifera, a smaller species not uncommon about Boston. The Cicuta virosa of Europe I have never seen.].
The species maculata has a fascicled root and oblong leaves with mucronate serratures.
The class and orders are as in the last article.
This plant is so remarkable for the form of its root, that had not the name of maculata been confirmed to me by the best authorities, I should have thought that of fasciculata to be greatly preferable. This root is composed of a number of large, oblong, fleshy tubers, diverging from the base of the stem, and frequently being found of the size and length of the finger. The root is perennial, and has a strong, penetrating smell and taste. In various parts of the bark it contains distinct cells or cavities, which are filled with a yellowish resinous juice. The plant is from three to six feet high. Its stem is smooth, branched at top, hollow, jointed, striated, and commonly of a purple colour, except when the plant grows in the shade, in which case it is green. The leaves are compound, the largest being about three times pinnate, the uppermost only ternate. Most of the petioles are furnished with long obtuse stipules, which clasp the stem with their base. Leafets oblong acuminate, serrate, the serratures very acute or mucronated. The veins end in the notches, and not at the points of the serratures. The flowers grow in umbels of a middling size, without a general involucre. The partial umbels are furnished with involucres of very short, narrow, acute leaflets. The distinctness or separation of these umbels characterizes this plant at a distance among other plants of its kind, whose umbels are more crowded. Calyx of five very minute segments. Petals five, white, obovate with inflected points. Fruit nearly orbicular, compressed, ten furrowed, crowned at top, and separating into two semicircular seeds.
The fleshy root of the Cicuta maculata, when pressed, emits from its divided extremities a viscid yellowish juice of a strong penetrating taste. This juice dissolves in alcohol, from which it is precipitated by water. When distilled, a thick volatile oil collects in the receiver in the form of a film upon the surface of the water. The remainder of the juice yields a resin of a dark orange colour, fusible and inflammable. The decoction of the root affords a pearl coloured fluid, not very sensible to the tests of mucus, faecula, tannin or extractive.
In August 1814, an account was sent to Boston by Dr. Stockbridge of Bath (Maine) of the effect produced on three boys by eating a poisonous root, which they had dug up, supposing it to belong to the plant called "Life of man." One of them was siezed with violent convulsions, frothed at the mouth, and died in an hour and a half. The other two were affected with vomiting, stupor, dilatation of the pupil, great paleness and universal distress; which symptoms disappeared in one in twenty four, and in the other in thirty six hours. It was supposed that the first boy had swallowed about a drachm of the root, and the others about half that quantity. A specimen of the plant was sent to me at the same time with the account, and proved to be the Cicuta maculata. Dr. Stockbridge's letter, which was published in the New England Journal, contains two other cases of the effect of this root, in one of which it proved fatal.
Shortly after the publication of the above facts, an article appeared in the New York Medical Repository, containing an account by Dr. Ely of Dutchess county, of the effects of an unknown poisonous root, supposed to be the white hellebore. Three small boys, who had gone into a meadow in search of sweet flag root, had dug up and eaten another root by mistake. Two of them died in convulsions in about an hour after they had swallowed it. They discharged much blood and froth from the mouth and nose; their eyes were fixed, with the pupils dilated, and a rapid motion of the eye lids. The third boy vomited, and recovered. When taken to the place the next day, he pointed out the spot where they had dug the root, and where a considerable quantity of it remained. Some of the root was planted by Dr. Mitchill in the New York Hospital garden, where it vegetated and produced flowers and fruit. It turned out to be the Cicuta maculata of Linnaeus. In the same article, is a letter from Dr. Muhlenberg, stating that he had received specimens from Savannah and from West Pennsylvania, where it had destroyed several persons, who ate it by mistake for angelica. All the specimens were similar, so that there could be no doubt of the identity of the plant. In the same letter, Dr. Muhlenberg remarks, that he had reason to believe that the poisonous quality of the root is altered by cultivation in a dry soil.
The foregoing facts are sufficient to establish the poisonous character of the plant under consideration. They may also serve to shew the importance of accurate descriptions and faithful engravings of noxious vegetables, which may enable even unlearned observers to distinguish them at sight. There can be little doubt that cases, like those above described, have occurred in repeated instances, which have never met the public eye. Perhaps also from an ignorance of the real cause of the symptoms, the proper remedies have been neglected. The plant is extremely common in many parts of the United States, and I believe its true character is not generally suspected. A very respectable physician informed me, that it was used in his vicinity as a gargle for sore throats, by people unsuspicious of its qualities.
Since the discovery of its narcotic properties, the Cicuta has been used in small doses, as a substitute for the conium, by one or two practitioners in this place. Its effects were very analogous to those of the true hemlock, as far as they were observed, but more powerful. A primary symptom, which attended a large dose, was nausea and vomiting.
The treatment of persons poisoned by this plant, as in the case of other narcotics, should primarily consist in a thorough evacuation of the stomach. As there commonly exists a spontaneous tendency to vomit, occasioned by the poison itself, this should be assisted by mechanical means, by irritating the throat with the finger, or with a feather. Of emetics, the sulphate of zinc is to be preferred, on account of its speedy operation. Castor oil or infusion of senna, should be given as soon as vomiting has taken place. The vegetable acids, such as lemon juice or vinegar, have a neutralizing influence on the narcotic, and are therefore useful. Strong coffee and tea are the best antidotes for the stupor, and should be promptly administered. In violent cases, bloodletting should be resorted to. As most narcotic poisons act by destroying the functions of the brain, respiration being suspended, because it is under the influence of that organ; Mr. Brodie is of opinion, that in some cases, life might be preserved by keeping up artificial respiration, after death has apparently taken place.
Cicuta maculata. Linnaeus Sp. pl.
Pursh, i 195.
Aegopodium foliis lanceolatis, acuminatis, serratis. Gronovius, Virg. 32.
Angelica Caribaearum elatior, olusatri folio; flore albo; seminibus luteis, striatis, cumini odore et sapore? Plukenet, Alm. 31, Phyt. t. 76, f. 1.
Bart. Coll. 18, 46.
Stockbridge, New Engl. Journal, iii. 334.
Mitchill, Ely and Muhlenberg, Med. Repository, xvii. 303.
American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.