NOTICE: Correction to the true identity of this tree forthcoming!
This Christmas tree was planted about ten years ago, an evergreen (not a spruce) tree Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) which surprised us in 2009 with flowers, and in 2010 with its first cones (which I’m pretty sure turn red-purple as they mature).
Like the native evergreens, this tree is slowly and steadily emerging from the protective understory of Red alders. I’ve seen this tree provide a home for spiders, caterpillars, tree frogs, and birds, but one never knows what’s hiding in this shady corner of the yard.
The adjacent foxglove (Digitalis) are coincidentally in their first year of flowering. These plants have been working up the gumption to blossom for at least four years, possibly longer, and shine in late sunlight with purple, pink, and white.
In preparation for the new moon planting this weekend, I set myself to the task of weeding the corn hills in the front yard. These hills are only a year old, made entirely of imported dirt (store-bought organic matter) layered carefully on top of our rocky soil, and fenced off from our husky. (Take a peek at last year’s planting here and here.)
Considering the low quality material and poor soil structure, I was truly impressed with last year’s healthy yield of delicious corn ears. My goal is to build up the corn hills a little each year by layering corn stalks, sunflower stalks, and other organic matter, topped with compost. I don’t intend to turn the soil, and will perform minimal weeding each year. (In case you haven’t noticed, dandelions and most wild flowers are welcome friends in my garden beds.)
This time, however, I must extract one of the most adventurous pioneers to homestead the corn hills. They emerged very early in the spring, and at first appeared to be ambitious carrots. As the days grew warmer, the plants grew taller, until I finally conceded that even the most industrious of carrots wouldn’t grow tops reaching eight feet in height (unless they’re some sort of GMO escapees I don’t know about).
I lopped off a stem on Wednesday and noticed that it was hollow inside. Time to break out Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, one of my favorite identification books. As it turns out, this tall, pretty pioneer is none other than the famed Poisonous-Hemlock (Conium maculatum), known by many as the source of the deadly toxin ingested by ol’ Socrates back in the day, may his trouble-making youth-corrupting soul rest in peace.
I’m always sad to remove a plant – even a weedy plant – but in this case, the choice is obvious. This plant is toxic for people and animals alike, and the husky I mentioned happens to love carrots. The plant smells pungent when cut; knowing what I know now, I’m glad I handled it with gloves on.
According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast:
The world ‘hemlock’ is from old english haelm or haem meaning ‘straw’ or ‘stalk’ and leac meaning ‘plant,’ applied originally to any plant in the Apiaceae with hollow stalks (like straw) left after flowering.
This plant is a happy invasive growing in waste areas and moist disturbed sites, easily found in urban areas (and I’m guessing that it was introduced with the very soils I used to build these plant beds). The easiest clues I found for identifying this plant are its huge size, generous branching, hairless hollow stalks, purple splotching and spotting along the stems, and delicate white flowers. You can click on these pictures to enlarge them for more detail.
RIP, pretty poisonous plant.