In my spring foraging classes, I often stump my students by lining up a young dandelion, chicory, and wild lettuce leaves in a row. They all look very similar, and my students really have to look for the details to tell them apart. Which leaves are fuzzy, hairy, or hairless? What are the sap colors where the leaf broke? Identification can often hinge on the finest details. In the case of these specific plants, it’s not a fatal mistake if students get the identification wrong. All three species have leaves that we can eat raw or cooked. Other plants, however, are not so forgiving. Some edible plants have hazardous look-a-likes, with dire consequences if we mix them up.
Grapes or Moonseed?
The genus that contains wild grapes (Vitis) can be found on many continents, with similar-looking vines, leaves, and fruit on the various species. There are plenty of different wild grapes in North America, particularly
on the East Coast. But here in the east, we also have a vine that looks like a grapevine – but it’s actually a poisonous imposter. The Canadian moonseed (Menispermum canadense) has a native range from southern Canada to northern Florida, and growing as far west as Manitoba and Texas. These vines have similar leaves to grapevines, and the moonseed fruits are so grape-like, that they are easy to mistake for the real thing. The entire moonseed plant is poisonous to humans (if consumed) and a significant threat to anyone who collects wild grapes. Moonseed can be fatal when eaten due to the toxic compound dauricine.
Fortunately for foragers, two details make identification possible. First, the vines of wild grapes have curly tendrils that they use for climbing and attaching to other plants. Moonseed vines lack tendrils. Secondly, and more importantly, the contents of the fruit offer us a chance to prevent accidental poisoning. The moonseed fruits contain a single flattened seed with a small notch, looking a bit like a crescent moon (hence the name).
Grapes will generally have 2-4 seeds in each fruit, with each seed being typically pear-shaped or teardrop-shaped. I have occasionally found a solitary pear-shaped seed in the odd wild grape or two, but when every other grape in the bunch has multiple seeds, you don’t have to worry about one random grape that only grew one teardrop-shaped seed. So it comes down to seed number and seed shape, which can allow you to positively identify safe wild grapes and avoid eating their deadly doppelganger. Moonseed fruits only have one crescent-shaped seed, and grapes typically have 2-4 pear-shaped seeds.
Carrot Versus Hemlock
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is alive and well in North America. This non-native species was likely brought here in the 1700s for one simple purpose, killing stuff. This is the same plant poison that Socrates used for suicide, and it has quite a body count over the centuries. The “umble” family, also called the carrot or parsley family is officially known as the Apiaceae family. What’s an “umble”? It’s a flower cluster that often resembles an umbrella.
This family contains almost 4000 species, including cilantro, celery, carrots, parsnips, and poison hemlock. Foragers are at greatest risk when attempting to collect wild carrots (Daucus carota, aka “Queen Anne’s Lace”). The leaves, stems, and flowers look very similar. Even the roots, which are the part you’d eat on a wild carrot, look a lot like hemlock roots. Hemlock may sometimes have purple-spotted stems, but they can also be completely green – just like wild carrot.
The big difference is hair. Wild carrots should have at least a few little hairs on the stalks and leaf stems, while poison hemlock (and it’s close cousin fools’ parsley, Aethusa cynapium) are completely hairless. To sum up, wild carrots must have tiny hairs somewhere on the stems or stalks, or I’ll assume it’s a young poison hemlock or fool’s parsley – and avoid it like the plague.
Plenty of our most beloved cultivated food plants are nightshade family members. The potato (Solanum tuberosum), tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), pepper (Capsicum annuum), and eggplant (Solanum melongena) are all part of this family. But these are just a few of the nightshades that are edible to humans, selected from hundreds of harmful nightshade species worldwide. Here on the east coast, we have several nightshades that grow wild. While I’m not a fan, confident foragers use the dark berries of fully ripened black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) as a wild food (immature fruit should be considered toxic).
Some strains of this species may have higher levels of toxicity, leading to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea after consumption of ripe fruit. Still, people have eaten it since Neolithic times, and people still eat it, even in modern times. Part of its dark history (including a bad reputation in early medical texts) has to do with its close resemblance to deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). These scary berries are some of the most toxic in the world.
Sometimes just called “belladonna” (Italian for beautiful lady), women once used it (in sparing amounts) to dilate their pupils, which was considered more attractive. Still used today as a source of the chemical atropine, the cocktail of other alkaloids in all parts of deadly nightshade are extremely poisonous (causing hallucinations, heart issues, and death). In closing, just because the leaves or other plant parts look familiar, a bit like garden vegetable plants, doesn’t guarantee you can eat them. In fact, wild specimens from this tricky family are best avoided as food.
Some Are Lilies, Some Are Onions
This can be a little confusing, but it’s a riddle worth solving. The lily family (Liliaceae) contains many different and diverse plants. The amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) has some lily-look-a-likes, but it also includes all of the familiar onion and garlic species, wild and cultivated. These onion relatives (the genus Allium) include the familiar onions, chives, ramps, garlic, and leeks that are found across the globe. Here’s the problem.
Some of the wild onions have some close relatives that are outside of the Allium genus, therefore not a true onion or garlic, yet are close enough on the “family tree” to bear a strong resemblance to onions and garlic. Some of these look-a-likes can be deadly. For example, you may find the wide-leafed fleshy wild garlic that is typically called a “ramp” (Allium ursinum) growing right next to similar looking plants that can kill.
Various species of death camas and toxic lilies have confused (and poisoned) hungry foragers for centuries. Make sure you use your field guide to positively identify any flowers, and smell broken leaves for additional clues. The sulfur compounds in onions and garlic have a potent and familiar smell. The imposters may have a slight hint of onion aroma, but not the pungency of the real thing.