Following a group of severe poisoning cases in the Grand-Est region, ANSES and the poison control centres are alerting the public to the risks associated with consuming toxic wild plants that have been mistaken for edible ones, including in garden vegetable patches.
Severe jimsonweed poisoning
In July 2020, the poison control centre for the Grand-Est region reported cases of severe poisoning following the consumption of toxic jimsonweed leaves. Four people from the same family had prepared and eaten a cooked dish containing jimsonweed leaves (Datura stramonium), which they had gathered from their vegetable patch after mistaking them for New Zealand spinach leaves. They quickly showed signs of severe poisoning, requiring each of them to be admitted to hospital in intensive care. While the clinical course was favourable for all four people, one of them required lengthy medical monitoring.
The people affected thought that they had been growing Tetragonia tetragonoides, an annual plant also known as "New Zealand spinach" or "summer spinach". Considered an "heirloom" vegetable, New Zealand spinach has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years.
The people had sown seeds bought in sachets from a garden centre, but they did not grow at the expected time. One year later, noticing young shoots where the New Zealand spinach seeds had originally been sown, they transplanted these shoots, which were actually jimsonweed that had grown by chance in the same spot.
Jimsonweed: a toxic wild plant sometimes used in vegetable patches for ecological pest control
Jimsonweed is a wild annual plant that grows readily all over France, in places such as fields, wastelands and piles of rubble, as well as in vegetable patches. It is sometimes sown at the end of rows of potato plants to attract and poison Colorado potato beetle larvae as part of an ecological approach to pest control.
All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause serious health effects and even death. The first clinical signs appear within an hour of consumption: digestive disorders (nausea, vomiting), dry mouth, accelerated heartbeat, dilated pupils, agitation, hallucinations, etc., and may be accompanied by disorientation, and even convulsions and coma.
How can you tell the difference between New Zealand spinach and jimsonweed?
- Jimsonweed has large (3-24 cm) leaves with an oval outline, unevenly toothed edges and sharp tips, whereas New Zealand spinach has smaller (2-11 cm), smooth-edged (without teeth), triangular-diamond-shaped, fleshy brittle leaves.
- Jimsonweed has large white trumpet-shaped flowers (6-11 cm), whereas New Zealand spinach's flowers are yellowish-green and positioned inconspicuously in the leaf axils.
- Jimsonweed is an erect plant and can reach more than 1 metre high. New Zealand spinach has a trailing or climbing habit not exceeding 20 to 50 cm in height.
The Agency’s recommendations
If you wish to pick plants from a vegetable patch:
- Do not make assumptions: ensure you know what the plant that is going to grow looks like. Make use of any photos of the plant available on the sachet of purchased seeds, or from other sources such as books or websites.
- Do not eat a plant you have harvested if you have any doubts about its identity!
- Remain vigilant: just because a seedling emerges in a place where seeds were sown, this does not mean that it comes from that batch of seeds.
- Be aware of the risk of confusion when harvesting plants that have been transplanted from one year to the next.
- 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 plants picked from a garden vegetable patch, contact a poison control centre immediately.
Poison control centres provide free, 24-hour emergency medical teleconsultations.
For any poisoning situation, seek advice and guidance from a poison control centre before consulting a doctor or going to the hospital emergency department.
Dial 15 (in France) in the event of a life-threatening condition (coma, respiratory distress, etc.)
24-hour emergency numbers for the poison control centres:
ANGERS +33 (0)2 41 48 21 21 MARSEILLE +33 (0)4 91 75 25 25
BORDEAUX +33 (0)5 56 96 40 80 NANCY +33 (0)3 83 22 50 50
LILLE +33 (0)8 00 59 59 59 PARIS +33 (0)1 40 05 48 48
LYON +33 (0)4 72 11 69 11 TOULOUSE +33 (0)5 61 77 74 47