Sunday, December 7, 2014

Plant Confusion--Hemlock, Both Umbels and Conifers

The leaves were long, the grass was green
 The hemlock-umbels tall and fair
 And in the glade a light was seen,
 Of stars in shadow shimmering.
 Tinúviel was dancing there
 To music of a pipe unseen,
 And light of stars was in her hair,
 And in her raiment glimmering."

(Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring p. 204)

As a child in upstate New York, I read and reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings until I had memorized a dozen of the poems. This one was one of my favorites. I imagined Tinúviel dancing in a forest under towering hemlock trees.

western hemlock

forest grove, Finland

But that was not Tolkien’s image.  He meant, dancing among plants Americans call poison hemlock.

poison hemlock, Conium maculatum
poison hemlock, Conium maculatum 
The word umbel should have informed me, but I didn’t know it.

What is an umbel? It is a cluster of flowers (inflorescence) that comes as a bunch of short stems (pedicels) from a central point, the short stems all the same length so that the whole forms a flat circle of flowers.
umbel flowers
umbel, close up
flowers, bishop's weed
a series of umbels on bishop's weed
(ground elder, gout weed), 
Aegopodium podagraria
Umbels occur here and there through the plant kingdom, but they are the characteristic and distinctive flower cluster of one plant family, called the Apiaceae or the Umbelliferae (blog on families). Carrots, dill, parsley, bishop's weed, cow parsnip and others are all in that family.

Also in that family is Conium maculatum, called poison hemlock in the United States and simply hemlock in most of the rest of the English-speaking world. Tolkien could write “hemlock” because there is nothing else in England called hemlock.

Confusion was created by settlers from England in North America. They encountered a tree that they’d never seen before. In naming it, someone was reminded of the hemlocks from home, either similarity in leaf/branch shape (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, compare poison hemlock leaf link and hemlock branch link) or in how they smelled (according to Wikipedia).--If you live where both are found, I'd appreciate an opinion!

Because of the resemblance, the colonists called the tree “hemlock.” And the name stuck. Hemlocks (the trees--somehow Americans don’t say “hemlock tree”) are found in eastern North America. (two species, Tsuga canadensis and T. caroliniana links to USDA maps) and the West Coast (T. heterophylla and T. mertensiana). Other species are native to east Asia, which is the source of the word tsuga.

western hemlock
western hemlock
Poison hemlock has been introduced to North America and is very widely distributed (USDA map). Although it isn’t rare, it is less conspicuous than the hemlock tree--at least I imagine that is why in the U.S. the tree is  “hemlock” and the umbel is “poison hemlock”.

When Americans talk about poison hemlock, they emphasize how poisonous it is. It was a draught of poison hemlock that in 399 BC Socrates drank to carry out the death sentence assigned him by the city-state of Athens. Weber and Wittmore in the Flora of Colorado, Eastern Slope wrote that children have poisoned themselves making whistles of the dry stalks.

The other hemlock, the tree, is not poisonous, in fact you can make a tea of the needles that is rich in vitamin C. 

I remain puzzled by Tolkien’s image: making a stand of this poisonous weed the romantic stage framing the elf-maiden’s dance. Perhaps he cherished it as a pretty plant or as a sign of summer.

Accurate botanical knowledge has changed the way I visualize the poem. The picture below, though lacking poison hemlock, seems to me rather like the image of the poem...without Tinúviel dancing.


Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
poison hemlock (white flowers) in
California, Karl is 6' 3" (1.9m)
I looked online for a picture that reflects the way the poem now seems to me, since there is so much Tolkien-based art today. I found almost none of the online Tolkien fan paintings included the umbels. Here is one painting that does: link But in that picture the plants are not even waist high. Poison hemlock gets a whole lot taller than that, to 2.5 meters (more than 8') according to my flora of Britain. Tinúviel could have easily been dancing beneath towering poison hemlocks. And they are pretty.

I wonder, of course, how many other literary images are wrong in my mind because I didn’t know the same plants the author did.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Blamey, M.  and C. Grey-Wilson. 1989.  The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. Domino Books, Jersey.
Oxford English DictionaryOED Online "hemlock, n." . Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 25 November 2014.
Online Atlas of the British Flora (under life form, in the graph) Web. 25 November 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R. 1956. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton Mifflin Publishers, Boston.Tsuga, hemlock Web 25 Nov. 2014
Weber, W. A. and R. C. Wittmann. 2001. Flora of Colorado Eastern Slope. 3rd edition. University Press of Colorado, Boulder. 

Kathy Keeler


  1. The reason Tolkien uses hemlock Umbels is because the poem is inspired by his experience of his wife, Edith, dancing for him in a wood among Hemlock umbels. The character of Luthien Tinuviel is based on Edith. On their joint grave stone the names 'Beren' and 'Tinuviel' are engraved.

  2. Perhaps too, the umbel hemlock grew much taller in America? Often introduced plants adapt their growth to the new conditions and go absolutely wild in the freedom offered in broader lands with more sun. I'm no expert - it's just a thought knowing how various introduced plants went feral in Australia.