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Expert warns trendy foragers to be looking out for toxic plants

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A foraging expert has warned the general public to be on the look out for toxic and potentially fatal plants that may very well be confused for edible herbs. 

Geoff Dann, a British author and foraging teacher, has outlined a few of the biggest risks to novices who could also be inspired by trendy foraging chefs on TV. 

One dangerous plant, often called dead man’s fingers, is a member of the family that also includes parsnips, carrots, celery, parsley and coriander. 

Despite its familiar appearance, the plant is widely recorded as essentially the most toxic plant to humans and animals, able to causing convulsions and even sudden death. 

One other toxic and potentially fatal plant, lords and ladies, is usually mistaken for edible sorrel but can cause difficulty respiration when ingested. 

Dann is the creator of a recent book, ‘Edible Plants: A forager’s guide to the wild plants and seaweeds of Britain, Ireland and temperate Europe’. 

In addition to wild edible species, the book includes edible ornamentals and ‘every vital poisonous species to pay attention to’. 

Geoff Dann, a British foraging author, has outlined the 4 most dangerous plant species facing foragers who do not know what they’re doing, in addition to 4 which can be suitable for eating. Listed below are three from each category

DANGEROUS OR EDIBLE? 

DANGEROUS  

LORDS AND LADIES (Arum maculatum)

DEAD MAN’S FINGERS (Oenanthe crocata)

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (Atropa belladonna)

FOXGLOVE (Digitalis purpurea)

EDIBLE

BLACK NIGHTSHADE (Solanum nigrum)

RAMSONS (Allium ursinum)

JAPANESE KNOTWEED (Reynoutria japonica)

THREE-CORNERED LEEK (Allium triquetrum)

Dann has chosen 4 dangerous species for the UK public to be most aware of, in addition to 4 edible plants for burgeoning foragers which can be secure to choose. 

Knowing which plant species to avoid and which to take home and eat has turn into ever more vital resulting from the recognition of foraging amongst chefs, as seen on TV shows equivalent to ‘Masterchef’. 

‘Foraging has steadily turn into more popular for the past 20 years, though there was was big uptick in interest through the lockdowns,’ Dann told MailOnline. 

‘It’s inevitable that the more people there are foraging, the more people will find yourself unintentionally eating something poisonous.

‘Fortunately this rarely ends in serious long-term consequences, though it does occasionally occur.’ 

Generally, the most effective advice isn’t to eat anything you have present in the wild, whether it’s plants or fungi, unless you are an authority otherwise you’re absolutely sure what you are doing. 

‘I suppose crucial rule is “Listen to what you might be doing”, followed by “If unsure, leave it out”,’ Dann said.

While the 4 dangerous plants listed below aren’t necessarily essentially the most deadly plants within the wild, they’re deemed a few of the most dangerous to a forager, partly because they will be easily confused with edible species, in line with Dann.

DANGEROUS: DEAD MAN’S FINGERS (Oenanthe crocata)

Dead man’s fingers, also often called hemlock water dropwort, has toxic leaves and stems that look lots like parsley, while the much more toxic roots of the plant look and smell identical to parsnips. 

The explanation for this is that they belong to the identical plant family – but this does not make dead man’s fingers secure to devour. 

All parts of the plant contain a robust neurotoxin called oenanthetoxin, which triggers spasmodic convulsions, normally followed by sudden death. 

Consuming any a part of the plant can result in nausea, vomiting, seizures, lethargy, sweating and visual hallucinations, in addition to fatalities. 

DANGEROUS: Hemlock water dropwort roots, also known as 'dead man's fingers', are widely recorded as the most toxic plant to both humans and animals. Pictured are the roots, the most poisonous part of the plant

DANGEROUS: Hemlock water dropwort roots, also often called ‘dead man’s fingers’, are widely recorded as essentially the most toxic plant to each humans and animals. Pictured are the roots, essentially the most poisonous a part of the plant

Quite confusingly, dead man’s fingers is a component of the Umbellifer family of plants, which also includes species of celery, parsley, parsnip and carrots. 

Because of this, dead man’s fingers flowers look very similar in appearance to parsley, with attractive white flowers. 

While essentially the most toxic part is the tuberous root – the part that appears like a parsnip – all parts of the plant are poisonous and a small piece will be fatal if eaten. 

Dann said dead man’s fingers is ‘easily essentially the most dangerous species’ for foragers and ‘essentially the most dangerous wild plant in Europe’, because there are multiple edible plants people might confuse it with. 

‘Other plants are more toxic, but they poison people less incessantly,’ Dann said.  

Pictured, the flowers of poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). While the most toxic part is the tuberous root - the part that looks like a parsnip - all parts of the plant are poisonous and a small piece can be fatal if eaten Pictured, the flowers of parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Members of the public should refrain from picking and eating plants in the wild if they have any uncertainty

Images show the similarities between the flowers of poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata, left) and the flowers of parsley (Petroselinum crispum, right)

FORAGING: BASIC GUIDLINES

Foraging is the activity of finding, gathering and harvesting wild foods at no cost.

Although foraging has turn into more popular in the previous couple of years, it goes back hundreds of years to before humans began farming.  

GUIDELINES

– Seek permission before foraging and perform a little research – in some areas, plant species might be protected.

– Pick areas with a plentiful supply and never strip an area completely. This might damage the species in the long term.

– Leave enough food for wildlife and avoid damaging habitats.

– Don’t pick protected species or cause everlasting damage

The plant ‘smells distinctive and unsightly’, Dann added, but despite this, people have still eaten it. 

In 2002, Emergency Medicine Journal reported how eight students in Argyll, Scotland, ate a curry made with hemlock water dropwort, after mistaking the roots for parsnips.

Despite them only eating a small amount of the basis, as they felt it tasted too bitter, 4 required admission to hospital.

Fortunately, boiling involved in preparation of the basis resulted in less severe toxic effects and severity of symptoms than otherwise would have been seen. 

DANGEROUS: LORDS AND LADIES (Arum maculatum) 

Lord and ladies is certainly one of the numerous common names for this plant, given in reference to the apparent resemblance of its flower to female and male genitalia. 

A spike protrudes from inside a cobra-like hood or ‘spathe’ of the flower, which also has arrow-shaped leaves. 

This spike grows all year long into an extended stalk that grows a dense cluster of attractive but dangerous red berries.

‘All parts of this plant are poisonous, and the leaves and berries contain microscopic needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate which, upon contact with the soft tissue of mouth and throat, cause immediate and intense pain and irritation,’ Dann said. 

‘When you get the juice from the berries in your hands it should irritate your skin.’ 

DANGEROUS: Lord and ladies is one of the many common names for this plant, given in reference to the resemblance of its flower to male and female genitalia

DANGEROUS: Lord and ladies is certainly one of the numerous common names for this plant, given in reference to the resemblance of its flower to female and male genitalia

Pictured are the dangerous red berries of lords and ladies, which grow from a stalk which originally emanated from the hood-like spathe of the flower

Pictured are the harmful red berries of lords and ladies, which grow from a stalk which originally emanated from the hood-like spathe of the flower

Unfortunately, the arrow shaped leaves of lords and ladies look very just like edible sorrel, and in order that they’re often mistaken for one another. 

Dann said he once confused the 2 and it took three days for the swelling in his mouth to go down completely. 

‘I didn’t even swallow one mouthful – you realize you have made a terrible mistake inside two chews, but by then it is simply too late,’ he told MailOnline.

‘I needed to drive to the closest petrol station spitting out of the window because I couldn’t swallow, then bought a bottle of milk and washed my mouth out repeatedly.’

What’s more, Lords and Ladies is usually found around wild garlic, which grows in abundance in England. 

Young leaves of lords and ladies look very just like wild garlic, often resulting in mistaken identity. 

DANGEROUS: COMMON FOXGLOVE (Digitalis purpurea)

The ‘beautiful but deadly’ common foxglove could be very common in Europe in woodlands, mountain grassland and sometimes sea cliffs. 

It is best recognised by its striking array of pinky-purple or white bell-like flowers on very tall stems with wrinkled, oval-shaped leaves. 

DANGEROUS: Common foxglove is best recognised by its striking array of pinky-purple or white bell-like flowers on tall stems

DANGEROUS: Common foxglove is best recognised by its striking array of pinky-purple or white bell-like flowers on tall stems

Dann said the ‘extremely toxic’ floxglove will be mistaken for members of the edible borage family, although unlike borage it ‘smells foul and tastes bitter’. 

But the entire plant is incredibly toxic resulting from the presence of glycosides, which cause skin irritation on contact, in addition to vomiting, dizziness, delirium, convulsions, headaches and cardiac arrest if consumed. 

Geoff Dann is a British plant and fungi expert, wild food teacher and author

Geoff Dann is a British plant and fungi expert, wild food teacher and creator

Digitalis remains to be used today to make medicines that strengthen contractions of the guts muscle, typically for patients with congestive heart failure. 

‘Dosage is crucially vital for medical use, and individuals vary of their susceptibility to fatal poisoning,’ Dann said. 

James Bond fans may recall their hero being poisoned with a Digitalis drug by antagonist Le Chiffre within the 2006 film ‘Casino Royale’. 

DANGEROUS: DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (Atropa belladonna)

Deadly nightshade is a sexy yet dangerous plant that inhabits hedgerows in England, often in dark and shady areas. 

It has oval-shaped leaves with smooth edges, bell-shaped purple and green flowers and glossy black berries, dubbed ‘death cherries’. 

All parts of the plant are toxic, especially the berries, which contain a mix of alkaloids that affect the nervous system. 

One in all them, atropine, causes sweating, vomiting, respiration difficulties, confusion, hallucinations and death. 

DANGEROUS: Fruits of deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) in autumn, Bavaria, Germany. These fruits have been called 'death cherries' due to their toxicity. All parts of the plant are toxic, however

DANGEROUS: Fruits of deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) in autumn, Bavaria, Germany. These fruits have been called ‘death cherries’ resulting from their toxicity. All parts of the plant are toxic, nonetheless 

‘It causes a wide selection of symptoms related to severe disruption to the nervous system, including hallucinations (victims may start talking gibberish or swipe at imaginary flying objects) and eventually death by respiratory failure,’ Dann said. 

The berries pose the best danger to children because they appear attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. 

Dann is the author of a new book, 'Edible Plants: A forager’s guide to the wild plants and seaweeds of Britain, Ireland and temperate Europe'

Dann is the creator of a recent book, ‘Edible Plants: A forager’s guide to the wild plants and seaweeds of Britain, Ireland and temperate Europe’

So if a toddler tried one, there is a risk that they’d carry on eating an increasing number of of them – increasing the danger of a fatality. 

It takes 10 or 20 of the berries to kill an adult, while just two can kill a toddler. 

Quite confusingly, poisonous deadly nightshade is a member of the nightshade family Solanaceae, which also includes edible plants equivalent to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). 

Be wary though – should you see a plant with berries that seem like tomatoes within the wild, chances are high they’re poisonous members of the Solanaceae family. 

EDIBLE: BLACK NIGHTSHADE (Solanum nigrum) 

Black nightshade has oval-shaped leaves, small, white, star-shaped flowers and clusters of round dark green berries which can be green at first but a dull black when ripe. 

‘Each the berries and leaves of this plant have been extensively eaten historically, each foraged and cultivated,’ Dann said. 

Nonetheless, the berries only turn into edible once they ripen and switch black. Once they’re green and unripe, they contain large amounts of a toxin called solanine, which could cause drowsiness and gastrointestinal symptoms when ingested.

Solanine can also be present in leaves and tuber – the bit that we eat – of the potato plant, which is why we must always avoid eating green potatoes. 

EDIBLE: Berries of the black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). The berries of this plant should only be eaten when they're black and ripe. They're poisonous when they're green and unripe

EDIBLE: Berries of the black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). The berries of this plant should only be eaten once they’re black and ripe. They’re poisonous once they’re green and unripe

So how will we tell the difference between black nightshade and its dangerous relative deadly nightshade?

‘Black nightshade has matt berries which hang in large clusters,’ Dann told MailOnline.

‘Deadly nightshade has shiny berries which are frequently singles, though sometimes two hang together.’ 

Volga Germans – ethnic Germans who settled and historically lived along the Volga River in Russia – traditionally use black nightshade berries in a cake or to fill dumplings. 

In his book, Dann has also shared a standard Turkish recipe for black nightshade, courgette and tomato salad. 

EDIBLE: THREE-CORNERED LEEK (Allium triquetrum)

Chances are high you have got stepped on the three-cornered leek within the wild without even knowing it’s edible. 

It’s distinguishable by its white flowers on a three-cornered or triangular stem.  

When pulled up from its roots, this species looks remarkably like spring onions. Your entire plant smells of garlic and onion when crushed. 

‘The entire of this plant is sweet to eat, from bulb to flowers,’ Dann said. 

EDIBLE: The three-cornered leek has bluebell-like green-lined white flowers on a triangular stem. It tastes like onions and garlic

EDIBLE: The three-cornered leek has bluebell-like green-lined white flowers on a triangular stem. It tastes like onions and garlic 

In Britain, the three-cornered leek is taken into account invasive because it isn’t native – it was brought over from the Mediterranean within the 18th century – and rapidly spreads over large parts of land. 

It may be present in abundance in woodlands, roadsides and riverbanks, especially in southern England. 

Under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales, it’s an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow this species within the wild. 

Dann said the plant will be utilized in soups, as a base for a mixed salad, to make a pesto, or as a cooked green vegetable.  

EDIBLE: RAMSONS (Allium ursinum)

Ramsons, or wild garlic, coat the woodland floor in spring, especially in damp and shady woodlands of the British Isles and Europe. 

The plant is detectable by its oval-shaped leaves, small white flowers and a particular and pungent garlicky smell easily noticed by foragers. 

‘The entire plant is edible, including the bulbs, that are prized by wild boar and brown bears,’ Dann said. 

Ramsons, or wild garlic, coat the woodland floor in spring, especially in damp and shady woodlands

Ramsons, or wild garlic, coat the woodland floor in spring, especially in damp and shady woodlands

Ramsons are sometimes utilized in salads and combined with eggs and mayonnaise, perfect for a sandwich filling. 

Ramsons have been confused with lords and ladies, in addition to one other highly poisonous plant called lily of the valley (which has paired leaves unlike ramsons).

‘Lily of the valley is repeatedly mistaken for ramsons, and even though it lacks the garlic smell the 2 species can grow in proximity,’ Dann said. 

‘Take care when picking – there are too many cases of individuals grabbing handfuls contaminated with poisonous species.’ 

EDIBLE: JAPANESE KNOTWEED (Reynoutria japonica)

Japanese knotweed has made headlines recently for being one of the feared invasive plants in Britain – but many persons are unaware it is also edible. 

Native to Japan, Korea and China, the weed was introduced to British shores by the Victorians as a decorative garden plant.  

However it spreads rapidly and has a robust ability to force its way through concrete or brick, damaging structures equivalent to houses and roads.

The stems of Japanese knotweed look and taste a bit like rhubarb, making it a good alternative for a crumble filling

The stems of Japanese knotweed look and taste a bit like rhubarb, making it a great alternative for a crumble filling

Aside from the flowers, all parts of the plant are edible when young and tender, including the chunky stems.

The stems look and taste a bit like rhubarb, making it a great alternative for a crumble filling. 

Based on Dann, Japanese knotweed is ‘under attack’ from local authorities resulting from the damage it might make to buildings. Because of this, the plant could have been sprayed by industrial-strength herbicides.

‘The one solution to be absolutely certain you might be avoiding this problem is to contact the landowner,’ Dann said. 

A WARNING FOR FORAGERS 

Overall, Dann stresses the importance of avoiding plants should you cannot discover them, and getting advice from expert sources slightly than random people on social media. 

‘One vital warning is to be skeptical of online identifications provided by other people,’ he told MailOnline. 

‘Social media provides an countless supply of unreliable information, and this isn’t any exception. 

‘It’s a specific problem with foraging, because a variety of people online wish to play at being an authority, and it is tough to know who actually knows their stuff and who’s guessing.’ 

Smartphone apps that claim to discover a plant just from a photograph also needs to be given a miss, in line with Dann.

‘Don’t trust apps,’ he said. ‘They repeatedly make mistakes that no human would make – e.g. mistaking ivy for maple.

‘Identifying plants requires far more than simply visual properties – smell, habitat and placement are all vital.’

‘When you are going to learn forage, then you’ll want to learn discover wild species yourself, and you’ll want to know what will be confused with what.’

Dann’s recent book, which comprises around 450 edible and poisonous plants, will be purchased from his website

DO YOU LIVE IN A JAPANESE KNOTWEED HOTSPOT? NEW MAP SHOWS WHERE THE INVASIVE PLANT IS FLOURISHING

Japanese knotweed is a devastatingly invasive plant that may leave homeowners and gardeners in a bind.

The fast-growing weed was delivered to Britain by the Victorians as a decorative garden plant and to line railway tracks to stabilise the soil.

While it’s controlled by fungus and insects in Asia, it has no natural enemies within the UK, where it might wreak havoc on gardens.

Now, invasive plant specialists at Environet have revealed the UK areas suffering essentially the most from Japanese knotweed infestations. 

Their findings show that Bolton, Bristol, St Helens and Blackburn top the list because the UK hotspots for the weed.

  1. Bolton, Greater Manchester (684 infestations)
  2. Bristol (475)
  3. St Helens, Merseyside (441)
  4. Blackburn, Lancashire (407)
  5. Capel Garmon, Snowdonia, Wales (398)
  6. Llanelli, South Wales (389)
  7. Cardiff, Wales (361)
  8. Rotherham, Yorkshire (306)
  9. Streatham, SW London (300)
  10. Nottingham (225) and Sheffield (225) =

Environet has developed an interactive map called ‘Exposed: The Japanese Knotweed Heatmap’, where users can explore what number of infestations have taken place of their area.

Read more: Interactive map shows where Japanese knotweed is flourishing within the UK

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