Photograph by the author.
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There are some wonderful wild edible plants scattered across this continent. Pick up a foraging book or take an edible plant class and you’re in for a surprise. You’ll start to see these edible plants everywhere. And then, as you dig a little deeper, brace yourself for another surprise. Some of the most common and popular wild edible plants have an “evil twin.” These plants look similar to their edible counterparts, but are in fact dangerous. Pay close attention to detail to avoid these toxic species.

hogweed

Photographs via NYDEC and Wikipedia

1. Giant Hogweed
This large member of the carrot family may have foragers thinking they hit the jackpot, and a big wild carrot is just below the surface. But in reality, this is a plant that is harmful to even touch.

Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a European native that is now considered a noxious weed by the federal government. This plant can reach heights up to 14 feet tall, and hairy stalks and white flower clusters closely resemble the wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s lace). Giant hogweed is surprisingly dangerous, as it is covered in a compound that causes a severe light-sensitive skin reaction. Within 48 hours of contact, the plant causes dark painful blisters that form after exposure to sunlight. These blisters go deep and result in scarring can last up to six years. But wait—there’s more. Getting this “sap” in your eyes can cause permanent blindness. Stay away from this pretty wild flower. If you see any purple spots on the stems (underneath the fuzz) or the leaves are the wrong shape for wild carrot, don’t even touch the plant. If you do touch it, wash aggressively with soap and water and stay out of the sun for a few days.

moonseed

Photographs via Steven J. Baskauf, bioimages.vanderbilt.edu, and USFWS

2. Moonseed
Not everything that looks like a grape happens to be a grape. The Canada moonseed (Menispermum canadense) is a climbing vine with grape-like leaves and clusters of grapey-looking fruits. These fruits are not grapes however, and are potentially fatal if eaten. To tell these look-a-likes apart, check the fruit seeds. Even though many wild grape species ripen at the same time as moonseed, the seeds are very different. Grapes will have 2-4 seeds that are round or oval in shape. Moonseed fruits have only one seed in each fruit and it has an odd shape, somewhere between a crescent moon shape and a Pac-man shape. If you think you have grapes, check the seeds before eating any of them.

horsenettle

Photograph by the author

3. Horse Nettle
The greenish or yellow colored, cherry tomato shaped fruits of horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) could look like a meal to the uneducated forager. Their tomato-like appearance should be a warning, though. The tomato’s family (nightshade) is full of wild relatives that are harmful to humans. The horse nettle fruits and most other parts of the plant are poisonous to varying degrees from the toxic alkaloid solanine. Eating fruits can cause abdominal pain, and possibly lead to circulatory and respiratory depression. Just remember that there are no edible “wild tomatoes” in the lower 48.

Ever caught yourself picking the wrong plant while foraging? Don’t be embarrassed, it happens to all of us at some point. Tell us your story by leaving a comment.

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