Natural killer dubbed ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’ washes up on UK shores after storms

Hemlock Water Dropwort, also known as Dead Man’s Fingers, was found along the shores of Cumbria. Coastguard officials warned the plant carries a fatal poison called oenanthotoxin in its white roots

Britain’s deadliest native plant was washed up along our coast by recent storms – prompting a warning to beachgoers and walkers today.

Hemlock Water Dropwort, also known as Dead Man’s Fingers, was found along the shores of Cumbria.

Coastguard officials warned the plant carries a fatal poison called oenanthotoxin in its white roots, which look like a bunch of parsnips and smell of parsley.

If ingested in even small quantities, the toxin will start to attack the nervous system, leading to convulsions and death by asphyxia within hours.

The term sardonic grin comes from the grisly practice in 8th Century Sardinia of disposing of criminals and old people using Hemlock Water Dropwort.

The poison acts by constricting the muscles, causing death by asphyxia with a rictus-like death grin, or sardonic grin.

The plant is normally found on riverbanks but it is thought that recent rough weather may have led it to washing up on Millom and Saint Bees beaches in the North-West.

Millom Coastguard Rescue Team said: “Please be aware that we have received reports of a highly poisonous plant being washed up on local beaches.

“So far there have been confirmed sightings at Millom and St Bees. Even a small portion can prove fatal to humans by attacking the nervous system. It is also fatal to animals.

“The plant has a highly poisonous root that looks, and smells, like parsley. It is highly likely that this is happening due to the aftermath of recent stormy weather.

“We advise people, especially with children and animals, to stay vigilant, avoid this plant and take extra care when visiting the beach.”

Hemlock Water Dropwort is a member of the Umbellifer family and is normally found in ditches, damp meadows, in streams, by riverbanks, and in marshes.

It is a large, stocky plant between three and five feet high that flowers in July. The lower stem is usually thick and joins clusters of fleshy tubers that gives rise to the popular name “dead man’s fingers”. The entire plant is poisonous.

Severe weather and flood warnings were in place across the UK today. A yellow weather warning was issued for North West England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland with high winds and possible short term loss of power. Flood warnings were also in place in England (84) Scotland (21) and Wales (33).

The Met Office warned the wettest and windiest conditions were expected in the North and West this weekend with bands of heavy rain showers and a risk of gales.