Stay in the know about wildlife, water quality, and ecosystems on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in Southwest Florida

A Native Beauty that Bites Back

April 3, 2024
Cicuta Maculata

Spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) is a perennial herb found in swamps, marshes, and freshwater wetlands throughout most of Florida. The flowering stalks that emerge in early spring are topped with large umbels of tiny white flowers.

These stalks can reach up to 8 feet tall and put on an impressive floral display through the summer.

Though the flowers prove enticing to many plant enthusiasts, caution should be taken if planting this plant in a home landscape. Spotted water hemlock has a sneaky secret. It contains a lethal chemical compound known as cicutoxin that, if ingested, fatally attacks the nervous system and is considered one of the most poisonous plants in North America.   

While that may sound a bit sinister to humans, certain wildlife isn’t bothered by this plant’s toxicity in the slightest. It is the chosen larval host plant of the Black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) and a prolific attractor of many beneficial bees and wasps. Birds also feast on the small brown seed.

Spotted water hemlock is a valuable pollinator plant despite its toxic tendencies. A great native plant to include in a wetland pollinator garden when thoughtfully placed in an appropriate location.

Fun fact: A notorious relative, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is said to be the culprit in the execution and death of the Greek scholar Socrates. 


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