Hemlock, a poisonous, invasive plant that’s increasingly common to fields and backyards across the US and Europe, is spreading like wildfire — and it can cause symptoms akin to the most severe cases of COVID.
The effects of the lavender-and-white weed, which resembles Queen Anne’s lace, can be felt even if you don’t directly touch it. Jim LeBlond, a resident of Madeira, Ohio, almost fatally learned this last May after cleaning out his backyard.
“I worked an entire weekend clearing honeysuckle and the weeds around it with an electric chain saw,” LeBlond told Good Housekeeping. “It had been a wet spring, and the weeds were already everywhere. I saw a lot of white flowers, but I didn’t think anything of it.”
He woke up at 4 the next morning struggling to breathe and had his wife take him to ER.
Doctors first feared the fully vaccinated LeBlond had a nasty case of COVID or pneumonia and admitted him to the ICU. His oxygen levels were reaching critical lows.
LeBlond — who was healthy and hearty just a few days prior — had to be put into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator because of the hemlock.
“I remember getting moved to a room,” LeBlond said of his early days in the hospital. “But my memory of the next three weeks is totally blank.”
As his wife, Jeanne, sat tearfully by his side, she feared for the worst.
“I was told many times he might not survive,” she said.
Pulmonary critical care physician Christopher Hayner ultimately found that simply breathing in particles of the hemlock had caused LeBlond to have something called an alveolar hemorrhage, in which, he explained, “the lungs can’t do their job of moving oxygen into the bloodstream as blood accumulates in the air sacs … Essentially, you drown in your own blood.”
“The toxic aerosolized poison hemlock particles caused respiratory failure,” Hayner continued. “Anything you can touch, you can also inhale.”
The weakness LeBlond felt through the ordeal was excruciating. He spent 109 days in the hospital, and ultimately needed heart surgery because of the problems with his lungs.
“Lying there, you think you should be able to just get up and go home, but you can’t,” he said.
What’s just as frightening is that the hemlock, which used to grow mostly in the wild, has been increasingly found in more populated areas, according to USA Today.
“Poison hemlock was nowhere, and all of a sudden it was everywhere … That movement is a bit scary to me because this plant is very toxic, and [its spread offers] more of an opportunity for kids to play with it and pets to eat it,” Dan Shaver of the Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service told the outlet. “It is not a plant you want around your home or in your local park.”
Shaver explained that the hemlock ripens between June and August each summer, and each plant can produce up to 30,000 seeds that easily scatter during yard maintenance — like in the case of LeBlond.
“The chemicals are in the sap, but the sap circulates throughout the whole plant, including the roots and seeds, so all parts of the plant are toxic,” said Joe Boggs, who works for the Ohio State University Extension as an assistant professor of entomology.
The conservation expert also advises gardeners to proceed carefully when it comes to eradicating the plant. If a hemlock plant already has budded flowers, he suggests clipping and bagging them.
“It’s important to control it,” Shaver said. “But it’s something that requires a lot of thought and caution before doing so.”