Don’t Die for Your Dinner

In the local paper the other day I came across some recipes for plants foraged from the wild and I cringed. No, there’s nothing wrong with the foraging trend (although I do worry about the impact of people yanking gobs of plants from natural areas) and I can understand the appeal of collecting your own food from Mother Nature’s salad bar.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature likes to trick us…and her tricks can be fatal. Which is why you really really really really need to know what you’re doing if you plan to forage, and why I wrote the article “Deadly Imitators” a few years ago. The article was originally published in BackHome Magazine in July 2012 and is a must read for anyone planning to go pluck a salad from a nearby field or forest.

Deadly Imitators

Some plants will send you to the hospital...or the cemetery.

Some plants will send you to the hospital…or the cemetery.

To add interest to her cooking, Louisa decides to try a wild green salad with plants she’s collected from a field near her home. Mark read that greens from the supermarket are laden with pesticides, so he collects some plants for dinner while out hiking thinking these will be better for him. Kelly remembers eating wild carrot as a child and, when she sees a similar plant along a stream, she gathers some for a snack that night.

What each of these foragers doesn’t know could be deadly.

Recently in Oregon, several people on different occasions became ill and some died when they incorrectly identified plants they believed to be edible. With the increased interest in natural medicine and eating wild-grown plants, this misfortune will only increase. This article gives you a guide to a handful of harmful species and their edible counterparts that can cause confusion even to experienced collectors.

Plant Sought: Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)
Uses: Edible root, known diuretic
Deadly Imitator: Western Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii)
Watch for: Location is the main key to identifying these. While Wild Carrot thrives along roadsides and dry meadows, Water Hemlock grows near water sources and in damp areas. Wild Carrot’s flower umbel is denser and flatter than Water Hemlock’s open flower head. Also, the stem of Wild Carrot is slender and solid down to the root, whereas Water Hemlock’s lower stem has air chambers throughout and changes from green to reddish at the base.

Plant Sought: Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Uses: Seeds and leaves used in cooking, aids digestion
Deadly Imitator: Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
Watch for: Since both these plants can grow in similar habitats, use your nose on this one. Crushed Dill gives off a familiar dill scent, but Poison Hemlock produces a musty smell, similar to old socks. Looking closely, you’ll notice purple streaks or blotches on the stems of Poison Hemlock, whereas Dill stems are solid green.

Plant Sought: Garlic Chive or Wild Onion (Allium sp.)
Uses: Leaves and flowers used for garnish and flavoring
Deadly Imitator: Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus)
Watch for: Death Camas is one of the most toxic plants in North America. To identify the flavorful Wild Onion from the poisonous Death Camas observe, feel and smell the leaves of the plant. A flat leaf-like a blade of grass with a rough texture is a key identifying feature of Death Camas. Wild Onions have smooth, round stems that are hollow in cross-section like chives. If still unsure, crush a leaf of the plant you are observing. A distinct onion or garlic scent tells you it is a member of the onion family. Death Camas has no onion smell.

Plant Sought: Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)
Uses: The stamens of this flower are used as an expensive spice.
Deadly Imitator: Western Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla occidentalis)
Watch for: Although the flowers of these two plants are similar, take a look at the stems and leaves before you begin collecting. Saffron Crocus has smooth stems and leaves, those of Western Pasqueflower have hairs along their length. Also, the veins of Saffron Crocus leaves run parallel to one another and don’t have any obvious branching. Western Pasqueflower leaves have smaller veins branching out from a central vein. Saffron Crocus is most likely to be found near home gardens.

Plant Sought: Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)
Uses: Licorice is used for it’s distinct flavor and to ease respiratory complaints
Deadly Imitator: Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.)
Watch for: Both of these plants have similar compound leaves with cream-colored flowers. However, Wild Licorice stems and leaves are sticky to the touch; those of Milkvetch are not. Looking closely at the leaves you’ll notice the tips of Wild Licorice’s leaflets bear small bristles, whereas Milkvetch leaflets have a small notch at the tip. If you look where the leaf connects to the main stem of Milkvetch, you’ll notice papery sheaths that Wild Licorice does not have.

Plant Sought: Lavender (Lavandula sp.)
Uses: classic fragrance, used as a culinary herb in some desserts and French dishes
Deadly Imitator: Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
Watch for: At first glance, these two seem similar with greyish leaves and pale purple flowers, but location and smell will tell you which is safe and which is dangerous. Typically, Lavender is found in dry, sunny areas. Pennyroyal prefers cool and moist places. The leaves and flowers of Lavender give off a familiar heady perfume, while Pennyroyal smells of mint. When in bloom, Lavender bears flowers on a loose spike. The flowers of Pennyroyal cluster in tight whorls along the stem.

Plant Sought: False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) or Star Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina stellata)
Uses: Both plants are astringents and have anti-inflammatory properties
Deadly Imitator: False Hellebore (Veratum viride) also known as American White Hellebore
Watch for: These three plants each bear clusters of whitish flowers and have large leaves along the stem. One of the key features of False Solomon’s seal is the stem that zigzags at each leaf attachment. The leaves of Star Solomon’s Seal have a characteristic wavy edge. Looking closely at False Hellebore’s leaves, you’ll notice they have a pleated look due to thick veins and the base of the leaf clasps around the stem. Both Solomon’s Seals bear white flowers with little scent. The flowers of False Hellebore smell musky and have a greenish tint.

Plant Sought: Mountain Ash (Sorbus sp.)
Uses: Bark tea has analgesic properties, the fruit can be made into jelly
Deadly Imitator: Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) Note: All parts of elderberries are toxic. The only exception is the berries of Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), but these must be cooked to make them safe to eat.
Watch for: Both Red Elderberry and Mountain Ash have compound leaves – leaves composed of several leaflets. However, Mountain Ash leaves have at least seven leaflets, while those of Red Elderberry will have seven or fewer. Mountain Ash gives off little scent and tends to grow more like a tree with a single, central trunk. Red Elderberry has a foul smell and shrubby growth with no obvious central trunk.

Plant Sought: Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Uses: The curled young fronds (known as fiddleheads) are a culinary delicacy.
Deadly Imitator: Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)
Watch for: These two will test your identification skills, but one is a delicacy while the other is deadly. Both have similar lance-shaped compound fronds (fern leaves) made up of leaflet growing out from a central stem. Look closely at thee leaflets. Those of Ostrich Fern have a smooth edge and rounded tip. Male Fern leaflets have a toothed edge and come to a point. Looking at the plant overall, Male Fern tends to have a looser form than the tight crown shape of the Ostrich Fern.

Plant Collection Tips
• If you have any doubt of a plant’s toxicity, leave it.
• Wash your hands (or gloves) immediately after handling any potentially poisonous plant.
• Avoid over-harvesting any area and don’t pick more than you need.
• Because even non-toxic plants can cause contact dermatitis, you should wear gloves when harvesting.
• Do not pick plants from any area that may have been sprayed with chemicals.
• Do not harvest plants from protected natural areas.

Identification Sources
• Petersen Field Guides provide excellent descriptions of plants with photos
• Your local native plant society will have information about identifying plants in your region. Go to to find a chapter near you.
• Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by Steve Brill provides images and descriptions of over 200 plants along with recipes of how to use your harvest.
• Some local colleges and nurseries offer inexpensive community classes on identifying plants.

Note: The advice in this post is not meant to replace the knowledge of skilled plant identifiers or to serve as medical advice. Any plant you harvest and eat is at your own risk.

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