Plantes Comestibles
01/07/2019 3 min

Edible and toxic plants: avoid confusion when picking

Following several reports of severe intoxication, including two deaths, ANSES and the network of poison control centres are drawing attention to the risks of confusing toxic and edible plants. The Agency is calling for greater vigilance and has issued advice on avoiding the risk of intoxication.

Some toxic plants resemble edible plants so the two may be confused, not only in the wild, but also in  the garden or vegetable patch. ANSES points out that picking plants for purposes of consumption is not without risk. Following a death caused by confusion between edible and toxic plants, the Agency is working with poison control centres to review all cases of intoxication linked to plant lookalikes and to put forward preventive measures.

Several recent cases of severe intoxication linked to confusion between edible and toxic plants

In June 2019, a 63-year old man died after eating water hemlock (or water dropwort), confusing it with the root parsley grown and picked in his garden. Between 2012 and 2019, the poison control centres recorded fifteen other cases in which water hemlock was confused with an edible plant.

In 2018, a man died after picking and eating monkhood leaves while out walking. He had confused this highly toxic plant with striped hemlock (Molopospermum peloponnesiacum), whose leaves are usually eaten with salad.

Last May, the Regional Health Agency for Eastern France sent out an alert after poison control centres reported twenty cases of intoxication caused by confusion between meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), and wild garlic (Allium ursinum) or perennial leek (Allium polyanthum).

More than 250 cases of plant confusion every year

Since 2012, ANSES has registered over 250 cases/year of mistaken identity in plants through its toxicovigilance scheme that groups reports from poison control centres. Overall, 1,872 cases of confusion involving plants were registered between 2012 and 2018. All age groups were concerned, including children under six.

hese cases of mistaken identity concern all sorts of plants. Depending on the season, they may involve flowers, bulbs, seeds, berries, roots, leaves, etc. ANSES has drawn up a list of the plants most frequently confused and/or causing the most severe cases of intoxication. The list includes cases where bulb plants are mistaken for onion, garlic or shallot, horse chestnut for chestnut, colocynth or non-edible squash for edible squash, or cuckoo pint for sorrel or spinach.

The most common symptoms are digestive disorders – stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. These can be severe in the case of plants such as colocynths. Some plants cause even more serious symptoms, with cardiac or neurological disorders, possibly proving fatal. This may occur, for example, when white hellebore (Veratrum album) is mistaken for yellow gentian, deadly nightshade for grapevine, or foxglove for comfrey.

Recommendations for avoiding toxic plants 

To limit the risks of intoxication from plants caused by mistaken identity, ANSES and the poison control centres have issued a number of recommendations:

  • do not eat a plant you have picked if you have any doubts concerning its identity;
  • stop eating the plant immediately if it has an unusual or unpleasant taste;
  • do not pick plants by the armful: avoid gathering different types of plant together as you could mix toxic species with edible species;
  • take photographs of the plants you pick for easier identification in the event of intoxication.

In the event of a life-threatening emergency (coma, respiratory distress, etc.), phone the emergency services (dial 15 in France) immediately.

If adverse effects appear after a meal, phone the poison control centre.