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Invasive poison hemlock takes root in Macomb County

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published July 2, 2020

 “Once you know what it looks like, you’ll likely see a lot of it,” Warren Environmental Advisory Committee member Fred Kaluza said of the invasive poison hemlock, found this year along the banks of the Red Run. The plant has been spotted near the Warren Community Center and Eckstein Park, near Mound at Chicago roads, and also south of 14 Mile Road, across from the Maple Lane golf course.

“Once you know what it looks like, you’ll likely see a lot of it,” Warren Environmental Advisory Committee member Fred Kaluza said of the invasive poison hemlock, found this year along the banks of the Red Run. The plant has been spotted near the Warren Community Center and Eckstein Park, near Mound at Chicago roads, and also south of 14 Mile Road, across from the Maple Lane golf course.

Photo provided by Fred Kaluza

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WARREN — The dreaded and dangerous poison hemlock plant has made invasive appearances in Macomb County for the first time this year.

According to Fred Kaluza, a member of Warren’s Environmental Advisory Committee, “the infamous Conium Maculatum” plant, the same type responsible for the death of the Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC, was observed and identified by EAC members on June 10 along the banks of the Red Run in Warren and Sterling Heights. He said the plant was documented in Macomb County for the first time by Heather Slayton at the end of May in a report to the Midwest Invasive Species Network.

Kaluza said the plant “festoons the banks of the Red Run” and that “in some places, it’s the most dominant plant along the river.”

According to history, Socrates was sentenced to death and died after consuming poison hemlock in tea.

John DeLisle, principal ecologist for Natural Community Services, LLC, Ecological Services & Design, said the plant is fatal if chewed and swallowed, while the primary risk lies with people sensitive to contact dermatitis resulting from the plant’s toxicity. In an email addressing the plant and its risks, DeLisle said “these reactions can be severe and can sometimes be enhanced by the victim continuing activity outdoors in sunlight.”

For anyone who comes in suspected contact with the plant, it is recommended that they wash their hands, clothes and any exposed skin.

Symptoms of ingestion or exposure to poison hemlock include nervousness, tremors and salivation, followed by a slowing of muscle activity in the heart and diaphragm, resulting in death.

Kaluza said the plants being observed this year are in their second season and range from four to six feet in height with clusters of small white flowers in an umbrella-like configuration.

“It’s got a really rank smell to it,” he said, when the flowers are in full bloom.

“Typically, what we’re seeing right now are mature adult plants,” Kaluza said. “It’s a biennial plant. It sprouts from seed. The first year, it starts as a very small rosette. It’s very innocuous looking. It’s low-growth vegetation. It sends down a deep taproot and overwinters. The second year is what you have now.

“Whatever this was, it probably got into the watershed, well, at least a year ago, maybe the spring of 2019. It could have been brought in by mowing equipment that is used by the county, or maybe it has just been carried downstream, because there are infestations in Oakland County, which is upstream.”

DeLisle said poison hemlock “also shades out native forest ground cover habitat if left untreated.” It spreads quickly in areas where the ground is disturbed and enjoys heavy clay soils and wet backyards.

“Infestations also occur along roadsides, field margins, ditches, marshes, meadows and low-lying areas, but poison hemlock prefers shaded areas with moist soil, or heavy clay,” DeLisle said.

Experts advise against mowing over poison hemlock and thus splattering its toxic sap all over the place without the proper protective gear. Burning it is also not recommended, as even the vapor or fumes of cut stems can reportedly cause respiratory injury.

“Mowing it down is not going to eradicate it. It’s going to come back next year,” Kaluza said. “The best way to treat it is with herbicides.”

Of course, that presents a problem where the plant is thriving — on the banks of the Red Run.

“I’m hearing that herbicide is effective when it can be utilized without impacting the water,” Kaluza said. “If you can get it in the spring, it’s very effective. The only other method is mechanical removal. Take out the root vegetation.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Kaluza said.

Warren’s EAC was formed under the administration of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, and the volunteer committee reports to his office. The group interfaces with city departments to offer insight on anything related to the environment.

Kaluza said the group has reached out to various groups, including the local department of public works and parks staff, the Clinton River Watershed Council and the Oakland County Water Resource Commission in an effort to raise awareness among those tasked with maintaining the banks of the Red Run, which begins in Royal Oak, flows through Warren and joins the Clinton River in Sterling Heights before eventually emptying into Lake St. Clair.

Much of the area is also accessible to the public. In an emailed bulletin, Kaluza cautioned anyone who accesses the banks of the Red Run near the Warren Community Center or Eckstein Park, on either side of Mound Road north of Chicago Road. Those who own property along the Red Run, those who operate businesses there and pedestrians on overpassses should also be mindful of the potential presence of the plant.

“This poison hemlock tends to move with the water,” Kaluza said. “Anybody downstream should be concerned, as well.”

In the event of suspected ingestion or exposure involving people or pets, contact the state’s poison control center at (800) 222-1222. For a medical emergency, call 911.

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