Walkers are being urged to avoid eating a poisonous plant that could be confused with parsnips – with deadly results.  

Hemlock waterdropwort is also known as dead man’s fingers. It has toxic leaves that look a lot like parsley. 

Meanwhile, the even more toxic roots of the plant – which were once picked and cooked in a curry by students in a catastrophic case of mistaken identity – look and smell just like parsnips. 

Oenanthetoxin is a neurotoxin that causes spasmodic convulsions and then sudden death in all parts of the plant.

Hemlock water dropwort is native to the British Isles and grows near water, but stormy weather has recently uprooted the plant onto beaches in Cumbria.

Experts are concerned that hemlock water dropswort might be taken home by ‘foragers’ or other unsuspecting members. 

Hemlock water dropwort roots, also known as 'dead man's fingers', are widely recorded as the most toxic plant to both humans and animals

Hemlock water dropwort roots are also known as “dead man’s fingers” and are widely considered to be the most toxic plant for both humans as well as animals. 

Millom Coastguard Rescue Team said on its Facebook page: 'Even a small portion can prove fatal to humans by attacking the nervous system. It is also fatal to animals'

Millom Coastguard Rescue Team posted on Facebook: “Even a tiny amount can prove fatal for humans by attacking the nervous systems. It can also cause death in animals.

So far there have been confirmed sightings of hemlock water dropwort at the towns of St Bees and Millom, Cumbria, according to Millom Coastguard Rescue Team.


Hemlock waterdropwort (Oenanthe.crocata) is known to be ‘the most toxic indigenous plant in Britain’.

It is a member in the Umbellifer famiy and can be found in ditches as well as damp meadows, steams, riverbanks, and marshes. 

It is a tall, robust plant with a height of three to five feet that flowers in July.

The lower stem is usually thick and joins to clusters of fleshy tubers that gives rise to the popular name ‘dead man’s fingers’

The entire plant is poisonous. The tubers, stems and leaves all contain oenanthotoxin. This is a highly unsaturated higher-alcohol that is poisonous and can cause severe convulsions.

Source: Emergency Medicine Journal/Mid Argyll Hospital 

“Please be aware that there have been reports of a highly poisonous species being washed up along local beaches,” it stated in a Facebook warning.

“Even a small amount can cause death in humans by attacking their nervous system. It can also cause death in animals.  

“We advise people to be extra cautious when visiting the beach, especially with children or animals. 

Consuming the herb can cause nausea, vomiting and seizures. It can also cause visual hallucinations and lethargy. 

Rather confusingly, hemlock water dropwort is part of the Umbellifer family of plants, which also includes species of celery, parsley, parsnip and carrots. 

The flowers of hemlock waterdropwort are very similar to parsley’s, and have attractive white flowers. 

While the most toxic part is the tuberous root – the part that looks like a parsnip – all parts of the plant are poisonous and a small piece can be fatal if eaten. 

The green part is a perennial and can grow to over a metre in shallow water such as streams, ditches or rivers.   

The Umbellifer family contains poisonous members such as poison hemlock (Conium macroulatum), poison cowbane, and hemlock water dropwort. 

According to Wild Food UK, hemlock water droplet is even more poisonous than the deathcap mushroom, which contains enough toxin to kill an adult. 

‘This puts that mushroom in the shade basically when it comes to poison,’ said Marlow Renton, foraging instructor at Wild Food UK. 

There have been confirmed sightings of hemlock water dropwort at the towns of St Bees and Millom, Cumbria, according to Millom Coastguard Rescue Team

There have been confirmed sightings of hemlock water dropwort at the towns of St Bees and Millom, Cumbria, according to Millom Coastguard Rescue Team

Pictured, the flowers of poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). While the most toxic part is the tuberous root - the part that looks like a parsnip - all parts of the plant are poisonous and a small piece can be fatal if eaten

Pictured, the flowers of parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Members of the public should refrain from picking and eating plants in the wild if they have any uncertainty

Images show the similarities between the flowers of poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata, left) and the flowers of parsley (Petroselinum crispum, right)

The rare event of poisoning by hemlock water droplets is not common. Animals are the most commonly affected, such as dogs out on walks. 

However, the public should not pick or eat wild plants.  

Geoff Dann, a foraging writer, told the Guardian that hemlock water droplet is predominantly known for killing livestock.

He explained that the root system is usually disturbed by earthworks or the edge of a river, and the roots are exposed to livestock. 

“There have been cases where people have dug it up and thought it was a plant they could eat, like wild celery or water parsnip, but this is extremely rare.

They are big, fat tubers. But who walks along the beach and picks up random wild plants that have washed up on the shore and eats them? It seems odd.     

Pictured, the plant's parsnip-like root, as found on Porthkidney beach in Lelant, Cornwall, in 2018

Pictured is the root of the plant, which looks a lot like a parsnip. It was found on Porthkidney beach, Cornwall in 2018.

Emergency Medicine Journal published a 2002 report that eight students from Argyll, Scotland ate a curry with hemlock waterdropwort after mistaking the roots as parsnips.

They only ate a small amount of root and felt it was too bitter for them. Four were admitted to hospital.

The root was prepared by boiling, which caused less severe toxic effects and worse symptoms than would have been expected. 

‘It is possible that with increasing interest in “natural” foods accidental poisoning of this nature may become more frequent,’ the authors reported.

“These cases show the potential dangers of this, however, they also highlight the fact that even small communities can have expertise which, if accessed properly, can be invaluable.


1. Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata). Water hemlock, a large wildflower of the carrot family is often confused with edible parsnips and celery.

Water hemlock, particularly in its roots, is infused with deadly Cicutoxin and can quickly cause potentially fatal symptoms for anyone who eats it. 

Painful convulsions and nausea, along with nausea and death, are all common. Those who survive often suffer from amnesia and lasting tremors. 

2. Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna). The deadly nightshade is a native to central and southern Eurasia. It has dull green leaves and shiny black fruits that are about the same size as cherries. 

Nightshade contains atropine, scopolamine, and berries in its roots, stems, leaves and berries. It causes paralysis in the involuntary muscle of the body, including the heart, and can cause paralysis. Skin irritation can be caused by even a simple contact with the leaves. 

The sweet taste of the berries is what often draws children and adults to this deadly plant.  

3. White Snakeroot (Ageratina Altissima).. A North American herb with small white flowers in flat-topped clusters. It contains a toxic substance called trematol. 

Milk poisoning symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weakness, abdominal discomfort and reddening of your tongue.  

White snakeroot was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks. She was poisoned by drinking milk from a cow which had grazed on white snakeroot. 

4. Castor Bean (Ricinus communis). Castor bean, a plant that is native from Africa, is widely grown as an ornamental. 

Castor oil is made from processed seeds, which contain poison ricin. They can be fatal in small quantities.

 It only takes one or two seeds to kill a child and up to eight to kill an adult. Ricin inhibits the synthesis of proteins in cells and can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, seizures, death, and even death.  

5. Rosary pea (Abrus precatorius).. These seeds, also known as jequirity beans or jequirity beans are high in abrin, a deadly ribosome-inhibiting amino acid.

Rosary peas are a tropical plant that is often used in jewelry or prayer rosaries. 

The seeds are not poisonous if they remain intact. However, seeds that have been scratched or broken can be fatal.  

6. Oleander (Nerium oleander). This plant is well-known for its beautiful flowers.

Although oleander plants are often used as ornamental and hedge plants, they can be deadly and contain the lethal cardiac glycosides oleandrin or neriine. 

Oleander can be eaten to cause vomiting, diarrhea, erratic heartbeat, seizures, coma, death, and nausea. Some people also find contact with the sap and leaves irritating to their skin.

7. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). Tobacco is the most commonly grown non-food commercial plant in the world. 

The toxic alkaloids nicotine, and anabasine can be fatally poisonous if they are consumed in any part of the plant, including its leaves. 

Despite being classified as a heart poison, nicotine from tobacco can be ingested widely around the globe and is both addictive and psychoactive. 

Tobacco use is responsible for more than 5,000,000 deaths annually, making it one of the most deadly plants in the world.

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica