Water Hemlock vs Queen Anne’s Lace: How To Tell The Difference

Water hemlock and Queen Anne’s lace have a similar appearance, displaying delicate umbel flowers and lacy foliage, but while one is harmless, the other one can be deadly. We explore the differences between these plants.

Water hemlock

Water hemlock

Water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) is a biennial plant native to North America that is often found in wet, marshy areas. It is characterised by its white, umbel flowers (a type of inflorescence in which a number of flower stalks or pedicels, nearly equal in length, spread from a common centre).

Water hemlock belongs to the Apiaceae family, including carrots and parsley, however, unlike its edible cousins, water hemlock is highly toxic. The toxic principle is cicutoxin, a neurotoxin that disrupts the function of the central nervous system. It is a non-competitive gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor antagonist, which means it blocks the action of GABA, a neurotransmitter that typically decreases the activity of nerve cells in the brain. When GABA activity is blocked, nerve cells become overactive.

Water hemlock is often confused with poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), however, they are different plants. The toxic principle of water hemlock is cicutoxin, while the toxic principle of poison hemlock is coniine.

  • Symbolism: None
  • Common names: Western water hemlock, Water hemlock
  • Uses: None

Related: Poison hemlock vs Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne's lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is a herbaceous flowering plant native to temperate regions of Europe and southwest Asia and is now naturalised in North America and Australia. Like that of water hemlock, the life cycle of Queen Anne’s lace spans over two years, which makes it a biennial plant. In the first year, it produces a rosette of leaves and accumulates reserves in its taproot and in the second year, it creates a flowering stem with umbel flowers.

  • Symbolism: Wisdom, purity, sanctuary
  • Common names: Queen Anne’s lace, Bishop’s lace, Bird’s nest, Bee’s nest
  • Uses: The young taproot is edible and has a similar taste to a carrot, ornamental use in the garden, attracts predatory insects, has been used as a skin toner due to its high potassium levels

Both plants belong to the Apiaceae family, however, is non-toxic. Due to the similarity between the highly toxic water hemlock and Queen Anne’s lace, it is important to differentiate between the two.

Water hemlock vs Queen Anne’s lace


Water hemlock

Queen Anne’s lace
Scientific NameCicuta douglasiiDaucus carota
FamilyApiaceae (Carrot family)Apiaceae (Carrot family)
OriginsNorth AmericaEurope and southwest Asia
Flower colourWhiteWhite, chocolate
Flower typeSmall, white flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters (compound umbels)Small, white flowers in a flat-topped cluster (umbel), often with a single dark red flower in the centre
Bloom timeMid summerSummer to autumn
BractsNo bractsBracts that resemble a bird’s nest,
are located where the flower stems meet the main stalk. They are divided into three or more finely divided, narrow segments, giving them a feathery or spiky appearance.
LeavesCompound, serrated with sharply toothed leafletsCompound, pinnate, with finely divided, fern-like leaves
StemSmooth, green and hollowHairy, solid
RootContains multiple chambersEdible when young, resembles a carrot
SeedsSmall, flat, round disks with noticeable ridgesOval and covered with tiny, fine bristles
SmellWhen crushed or bruised, the plant emits an unpleasant odourWhen crushed or bruised, the plant (especially the root) smells like a carrot
HeightUp to 300 cm (10 feet)94-180 cm (3-6 feet)
HabitatCommonly found in wet habitats like marshes and along stream banksPrefers drier habitats, often found in meadows, pastures, and along roadsides
ToxicityHighly toxic due to cicutoxin, especially the rootMildly toxic (furocoumarins)



Do not forage for any plants unless you are absolutely 100% certain you can correctly identify them. This is especially important for water hemlock due to its extreme toxicity. All parts of the plant are toxic, however, the roots contain the greatest level of toxins.

Always buy seeds and seedlings from a reputable source such as a nursery, to avoid inadvertently growing the wrong plant.