Spring is one of the best times of year for edible plant foraging. The pent up plants are growing fast after their long winter slumber, and in most areas there are a greater number of edibles now than in any other season. But this free-food bonanza doesn’t come risk-free. Immature plants of different species can often resemble one another. Within the same species, adult specimens can look very different than young ones. All of these variations can make the spring season a prime time for misidentification mishaps. Here’s how to avoid dangerous plant look-a-likes, and what to do if you didn’t.

Pay Attention To Details
When it comes to ethnobotany (how people make use of plants), the devil is in the details. Different species of plants might look alike at first glance, but look a little closer and you’ll start to notice subtle differences. Young plants that are supposed to be fuzzy may not have grown their “whiskers” yet. Early leaves will not be the same shape as the mature ones pictured in your identification book. In spring, there are a lot of changing features that can be confusing. Follow these guidelines and you won’t go astray.

1. Know the poisonous plants in your area and avoid anything that even slightly resembles them.

2. Stick to the flowering plants, since many guide books are keyed by flower petal count and color.

3. Be extra cautious with young wild carrots (Daucus carota) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium), since they resemble the deadly poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fool’s parsley (Aethusa cynapium).

4. Don’t assume anything. Just because you found a dried wild carrot stalk from last year doesn’t mean the plants growing under it are baby carrots. Inspect each and every plant carefully and ID them based on their own characteristics.

5. If in doubt, DO NOT eat it!

Act Quickly
If a plant poisoning is suspected, you’ll need to act fast. While most poisonings merely cause digestive distress, you don’t want to take the chance that worse symptoms will develop. A quick response to toxins will minimize the damage they can cause and perhaps even save a life.

If Medical Care Is Available
Call 911 immediately if a poisoning is suspected. Give them the name of the plant, or the best description you can muster. Explain the plant part eaten and how much was eaten. Provide the time and manner of consumption, as well as the age and weight of the victim. Finally, describe the poisoning symptoms that are being observed. Wait for an ambulance or take a trip to the doctor, as directed.

If Medical Care Is Not Available
In this scarier scenario, you’re on your own. Have the victim drink several glasses of water, and induce vomiting. This can be done by sticking a finger down the throat, or consuming an emetic (like ipecac syrup). Vomit several times, until the stomach is clear, then monitor the victim for symptoms of shock or other serious medical issues. Try to get to medical care as soon as possible.

Have you been out foraging this spring? Tell us what you’ve found by leaving a comment.