Confusion between autumn crocus and wild garlic can lead to fatal poisoning
Wild plant picking can lead to confusion between edible and poisonous plants. ANSES and the Poison Control Centres are once again warning of intoxications linked to the consumption of autumn crocus, confused with wild garlic. Between 2020 and 2022, two deaths occurred due to autumn crocus poisoning.
Poisonings occur in spring
Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) is most often confused with wild garlic (Allium ursinum), and more rarely with many-flowered garlic (Allium polyanthum). All three plants grow in spring in the same undergrowth. The flowers of autumn crocus, which are very different from those of wild garlic or leek, only appear in autumn (after wild and many-flowered garlic), making it easier to confuse the leaves of these three plants when they are picked in spring before any of them have flowered.
Between 2020 and 2022, 28 cases of confusion between autumn crocus and wild garlic or many-flowered garlic were registered with the Poison Control Centres. The poisonings occurred between March and May, with a peak in April, mainly in the Grand Est and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regions.
Half of the people poisoned had used the leaves to make a pesto sauce. The other half had eaten them in salads, pan-fried them or used them in a quiche.
Two deaths between 2020 and 2022
Among those poisoned, half showed pronounced or prolonged symptoms (persistent diarrhoea or vomiting) and four people showed severe, life-threatening symptoms including acute digestive, liver and haematological disorders. Two people died.
The severity of the poisoning depends on the quantity of leaves ingested, the concentration of colchicine in the plant (which varies greatly), and whether it is in combination with certain common drugs (including macrolide antibiotics and antivitamin K), which can significantly increase the toxic risk.
How can you tell the difference between wild garlic and autumn crocus?
Wild garlic (also known as ramsons) is an edible wild plant, 15 to 40 cm high when mature, with a characteristic garlic smell, especially when its leaves are crushed. Its star-shaped flowers and elongated bulb are both white. The long-stemmed, oval, pointed leaves are glossy to varying degrees. This plant often grows in large carpets in cool undergrowth, in damp shady valley bottoms or along streams. The leaves appear in February-March and the flowers from April to early June. The leaves are picked until the first flowers appear.
Autumn crocus leaves are stiffer and stemless, and its bulb is round and dark. The mauve flowers do not appear until autumn, only the leaves are visible in spring; they are fleshy and round-tipped, and seem to emerge straight out of the ground. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
If you do pick wild garlic:
- Do not make assumptions: ensure you know which plant you are picking;
- Check that each leaf has a garlic odour when rubbed;
- Do not pick leaves by the armful: avoid gathering different types of plants together as you could mix toxic species with edible ones;
- If you have any doubts about identification, do not eat them!
- Stop eating the leaves immediately if they have a bitter or unpleasant taste;
- Take photographs of the plants you pick for easier identification in the event of poisoning.
If you have any doubts after ingestion or if you experience any digestive or other symptoms within hours of eating a dish containing wild garlic or many-flowered garlic, contact a poison control centre or a doctor immediately.
Dial 15 (in France) in the event of a life-threatening condition (coma, respiratory distress, etc.)
24-hour emergency numbers for poison control centres (in French):
ANGERS +33 (0)2 41 48 21 21
BORDEAUX +33 (0)5 56 96 40 80
LILLE +33 (0)8 00 59 59 59
LYON +33 (0)4 72 11 69 11
MARSEILLE +33 (0)4 91 75 25 25
NANCY +33 (0)3 83 22 50 50
PARIS +33 (0)1 40 05 48 48
TOULOUSE +33 (0)5 61 77 74 47