Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in foraging – the activity of finding, gathering, and harvesting wild plants. However, since many of the plants found in the wild are highly poisonous, although they look similar to various edible plants, knowing which plant species to avoid and which to gather and consume is crucial. Geoff Dann, a British writer and foraging teacher, has now outlined some of the biggest risks novice foragers are facing when searching for wild plants.
According to Dann, the best advice is never to eat anything found in the wild that we are not absolutely sure what it is. “I guess the most important rule is ‘Pay attention to what you are doing,’ followed by ‘If in doubt, leave it out,’” he said.
Dann warned foragers about four plant species – dead man’s fingers, lords and ladies, foxglove, and deadly nightshade – which, even if they look similar to other edible species, are in fact very dangerous, and can cause severe illness and death.
Dead men’s fingers (Oenanthe crocata) has toxic roots and stems that look very much like parsley, and even more poisonous roots which look and smell exactly like parsnips. Consuming this plant can trigger spasmodic convulsions, often followed by sudden death. Similarly, lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), a plant whose leaves closely resemble edible sorrel and wild garlic, can cause intense pain and irritation upon contact with the soft tissue of the mouth and throat.
Another plant Dann warns foragers about is the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which is often mistaken for members of the edible borage family. However, since it contains glycosides, the foxglove can cause skin irritation on contact, as well as headaches, vomiting, convulsions, delirium, and cardiac arrest if consumed. Finally, the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona), which sports attractive and delicious-looking black berries, leads to severe disruptions of the nervous system and eventually death by respiratory arrest if consumed.
“Identifying plants requires much more than just visual properties – smell, habitat, and location are all important. If you are going to learn how to forage, then you need to learn how to identify wild species yourself, and you need to know what can be confused with what,” concluded Dann.
In his recent book – Edible Plants: A forager’s guide to the wild plants and seaweeds of Britain, Ireland and temperate Europe – Dann describes in great detail a large number of edible plants, including the black nightshade, the Japanese knotweed, or the three-cornered leek.