Confusion between toxic and edible plants
Published on 18/05/2020
Some toxic plants resemble edible plants and may be confused with them, not only in the wild but also in the garden or vegetable patch. Picking plants for consumption is not without risk: 250 cases of confusion are documented every year. ANSES and the network of poison control centres are drawing attention to the risks of mistaking toxic plants for edible ones. The Agency is calling for greater vigilance and has issued advice on avoiding the risk of poisoning.
Edible and toxic plants: avoid confusion when picking
Some toxic plants resemble edible plants and may be confused with them, not only in the wild but also in the garden or vegetable patch. ANSES points out that picking plants for consumption is not without risk. Following a death caused by toxic plants being consumed by mistake, the Agency is working with poison control centres to review all such poisoning cases and suggest some preventive measures.
More than 250 cases a year of toxic plants being consumed by mistake
Since 2012, ANSES has documented over 250 cases a year of mistaken identity involving plants through its toxicovigilance scheme, which collects reports from poison control centres. Overall, 1872 cases of toxic plants being consumed by mistake were documented between 2012 and 2018. All age groups were concerned, including children under six.
Several recent cases of severe poisoning due to toxic plants being consumed by mistake
Recent cases have been recorded of severe poisoning due to toxic plants being consumed by mistake. Between 2012 and June 2019, poison control centres recorded fifteen cases in which water hemlock was consumed after being confused with an edible plant. In May 2020, the Grand-Est Regional Health Agency issued an alert after poison control centres reported twenty cases of poisoning caused by confusion between meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) and wild garlic (Allium ursinum) or many-flowered garlic (Allium polyanthum).
These 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 poisoning cases. The list includes bulb plants being mistaken for onion, garlic or shallot; horse chestnut for sweet chestnut; colocynth or inedible gourd for edible squash; and cuckoo pint being confused with 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 is mistaken for gentian, deadly nightshade for grapevine, or foxglove for comfrey.
Recommendations for avoiding consumption of toxic plants
To limit the risk of poisoning 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 about 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 ones.
- Take photographs of the plants you pick for easier identification in the event of poisoning.
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