NOTE: Click the images to make them large enough to easily see distinguishing features. If there was an easy way for me to do that here, believe me, I would have. As it is all images are stored at Mycotopia with larger copies linked to offsite. If you are admin and you can fix this, go for it, but it gave me a huge fucking headache.
Wild carrot (Daucus carota) is a worthwhile plant to forage. The root and flower stem are both edible (and delicious). It's available year-round with a wide distribution throughout the country. It's even easy to ID in the winter, with a distinct flower that dries up and sticks around, poking up through the snow. When it's in flower you can spot it from a distance and it's quick to gather in bulk.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a goddam impostor. The leaves, flower, and root all bear a passing resemblance to wild carrot. It smells a little like wild carrot. The stupid, deadly root even tastes a little like carrot. The alkaloids are concentrated in the root in sufficient quantities to easily kill, and I wouldn't eat the stem either.
The safest way to tell these two apart is to buy the book Nature's Garden by Samuel Thayer. The pictures in this post won't be as good as Thayer's. I'm not as smart or experienced as him. I am ripping off the table below wholesale (with permission) and he's the expert. I really urge you guys to buy it if you're interested in harvesting wild carrot, but I'm going to do my best.
Without even further ado, here is a bigass chart that will hopefully prevent you from doing a historical reenactment of Socrates' execution.
Note: “This chart lists some distinguishing features of wild carrot and poison hemlock, beginning with those that are easiest to observe and most consistent and reliable. Note that my description of the carrot leaflet is different from that found in most plant manuals: most botanists consider each of the lobes to be leaflets, thus often describing the leaflets as linear. Viewing the leaf, I find this to be a flawed interpretation of its’ form; the lobes are narrow but only rarely divided from each other.” -- Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden pg. 360
This chart may be copied and distributed for educational purposes, but not for sale
I think that at this point I should make something clear - I’m not that bright. Thayer does a great job explaining things in general but when I start seeing multiple references to rachis and petioles I sweat and try to remember boring details from high school biology classes. So I did my research and tried my best to break down some of the more technical aspects of the chart with photos and short descriptions. I’m splitting the differences into three key groups based on plant structures. None of this should take the place of the chart, and none of it is as good as the photos in the book.
Hairy green carrot stems can be peeled and eaten.
Smooth hemlock stems, spotted and streaked with purple, have the emotional capacity for hatred.
In addition to being smooth, the stems of poison hemlock will leave a residue on your finger when you rub it. It looks about like this.
To begin with, here are a few confusing plant terms!
A wild carrot has a solid, u-shaped petiole and rachis while the poison hemlock is hollow and forms an O. People have actually died making whistles and straws from dry hemlock according to some story by some guy on the internet.
Carrot leaves are irregularly lobed
Compare that to the regular, deeply lobed leaflets of poison hemlock.
We’re not worried about the individual flowers so much as the bracts, which are little specialized leaf-like structures, and the umbel, which is a type of inflorescence (Science talk for group of flowers)
Wild carrot has bracts nearly as wide as the flower.
The small bracts of poison hemlock ain’t no bigger than a beetlebug.
The umbels of wild carrot tend to be more dense and there aren’t as many on the plant. I chose this photo because you can see other identifying features as well.
While the umbels of poison hemlock are more sparse and there are a lot more of them.
Immature carrot umbels and old, dry ones take on a shape similar to a bird’s nest, while poison hemlock flowers remain similar at all stages of development.
Wild carrot really is pretty safe to gather as long as you make sure to get a positive ID and if you’re at all in doubt leave it in the field. If someone needs help with a positive ID please don’t just take pictures of the root, concentrate on the three areas I mentioned above.
Thus concludes most everything that I have to say about wild carrot and poison hemlock. I did pretty good I think, with only one mention of Socrates.
Edited by throwmeaway7, 07 November 2013 - 10:36 PM.