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What is Oenanthe?

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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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Oenanthe is a genus, or subgroup, of the plant family Apiaceae, a group of plants that includes many savory herbs and vegetables such as carrots, celery, fennel, anise, and parsley. Plants of the Oenanthe genus are often referred to by the common name "water dropwort" because they prefer growing in moist, swampy areas. Many species of this genus are poisonous to livestock, wildlife, and humans, most notably the species O. crocata, which is found growing wild in Europe, the Middle East, and east Asia. The species Oenanthe javanica, on the other hand, is an edible vegetable that is consumed in many parts of the world.

The name "Oenanthe" comes from the Greek and describes the sweet aroma of the plants, which are often said to smell like wine. In Greek, "oinos" means "wine," and "anthos" means "flower." The common name "water dropwort" was given to this genus because many of its individual species physically resemble an unrelated plant called dropwort, which generally prefers dryer growing conditions.

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Oenanthe crocata, also known by the common names hemlock water dropwort, horsebane, and dead tongue, contains a powerful toxic substance called oenanthotoxin. The toxin is found mostly in the stems and roots of the plant, while its leaves are relatively harmless and are often consumed by livestock while grazing. Oenanthotoxin is a neurotoxin, meaning that it is a poison that attacks the central nervous system. Ingesting roots or stems of O. crocata can lead to intense pain, muscle convulsions, vomiting, and often death.

This species is particularly dangerous because its appearance is quite similar to a number of plants that are commonly consumed as food. Its poisonous stems are thick and green and strongly resemble celery. The plant also has tapered, white roots that are described as looking like white carrots or parsnips. Cases of poisoning are often linked to a child or other unknowing person mistaking the plant for an edible species. Livestock may be poisoned by accidentally eating the plant's roots, which may become exposed by rainwater.

The related species Oenanthe javanica is an edible plant, also known by its common names Chinese celery or Japanese parsley. This species is a long-lived flowering plant that prefers to grow in sunny, moist conditions. It has small, white or off-white flowers and thick, green stalks that also resemble those of the common celery plant. In taste, however, it is herbal, aromatic, and not dissimilar to parsley. The leaves and stems of this species may be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

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