Can you tell a tasty salad from a poisonous plant?

Be careful what you pick, spring wild garlic often grows along side more the mouth blistering lords and ladies.

Foraging can be a very rewarding pastime and can add a whole new element to a walk in the country.  At this time in the spring the scent of wild garlic fills woodlands and kitchens evoking memories and filling stomachs across the land.

However, this idyllic picture is soon shattered as there can be darker side to this botanical and culinary hobby. This year I’m sad to say I’ve come across many accidental poisonings from first time foragers. All have ingested small amounts of Arum maculatum or as it is more commonly known Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint in the belief it was a lush green salad leaf.  This has led to swelling and burning of the mouth due to the presence of oxalate crystals in the plant.  To me this highlights a real gulf between television and the media’s representation of foraging as a safe and trouble free past time people can pick up easily. The reality is that without plenty of research, time and diligence and careful the process of elimination you can get things wrong.

In the case of lords and ladies the very fact that it burns the mouth on contact ensures that very little (if any) is ingested and it therefore often does no real long term damage. If you mistakenly eaten a small amount of the plant you should try and spit out all of the plant and repeatedly rinse the mouth with water.  If symptoms persist or problems occur with breathing or if the burns are severe you should seek medical attention immediately.

Some poisonous plants can look like quite harmless. This very toxic one looks like parsley.

Other plants to watch out for those in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae or carrot family. Many cultivated edibles such as parsley (and of course the carrot) belong in this family as do tasty wild food plants such as Alexander’s and fennel. However this family also includes such nasties as hemlock and hemlock waterdrop wort which can potentially be fatal.  For this reason Andy and myself always advise new foragers leave this whole family alone building up identification skills with safer plants first.  Growing edible and poisonous plants from seed is one method of ensuring identification and at least one if not two seasons of observation (without eating) will help even more.

Foraging is fun and a great way of trying new foods you simply wouldn’t come across in normal life (have you ever seen Stag Horn sumac lemonade for sale?).  Once you know what you are doing it is perfectly safe, I’ve had no cases of food poisoning from wild food but plenty from eating out.

There is one simple rule to go by if you are not sure its edible don’t eat it. Despite claims on the contrary PLANTS WON’T TELL YOU IF YOU CAN EAT THEM OR NOT. If in doubt book on a course nearby (one of ours if you are in the South West of England) and be sure check out the credentials of who you book with.


5 Responses, Leave a Reply
  1. Bonnie
    04 April 2011, 12:40 pm

    Yup *holds up hands*

    I have made this mistake and chomped on a leaf, only to find my mouth on fire moments later – I was expecting sorrel!

  2. Elayne
    12 April 2011, 9:44 am

    Big mistake easily made is when harvesting Wild Garlic, the leaves of Lily of the Valley look so similar and they are deadly poisonous! Best to wait till the flowers appear, then the difference is obvious, or smell each leaf you pick to be sure it is actually garlic! Nice article!

  3. Silas
    01 July 2011, 8:12 pm

    I made the wild garlic mistake this year and spent an evening at A&E with intravenous steroid and antihistamine plumbed into my arm and a mouth that blistered and swelled like crazy. I’ll never make that mistake again!

    Never did work out what leaf I put in my mouth by mistake. I didn’t swallow it, my mouth exploded almost instantly. 1 rogue leaf in a bunch of ‘gooduns’

  4. […] anyway. Common sorrel we already knew about, and carrying double- and triple-checked it isn’t lords and ladies (its unwholesome lookalike), we know it’s protected to use. But we didn’t realize we […]

  5. […] anyway. Common sorrel I already knew about, and having double- and triple-checked it isn’t lords and ladies (its poisonous lookalike), I know it’s safe to use. But I didn’t realise we had fat […]

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