Can you recognize these toxic plants of Missouri?

Julie Weber Trending Topics

The social distancing and quarantine lifestyle lately has been a big change for most of us. Here at the poison center, we have noticed an increase in Missouri residents exploring the great outdoors and foraging for food. Suspected reasons for this recent increase may be: the fear of going shopping and being exposed to the virus, a desire to get back to a simpler lifestyle, and the challenge of taking care of ourselves, in addition to getting restless with plenty of free time. The poison center likely has a narrow perspective in regards to foraging. After all, we rarely get calls from people who forage and it all goes well. Our medical experts only hear from people when it does not go as planned and a toxic substance is eaten resulting in unpleasant symptoms. We realize some Missourians are experienced foragers, however, for the novice  make sure you educate yourself ahead of time to avoid a poisoning.   

Mushrooms:

Morel mushrooms have a season that starts in late March and ends around the early part of May. There are many internet sites that will give instructions for morel hunters on how to best find the mushrooms. Most sites will also give fair warning of the “false morel” which has a similar look, but certainly not a similar outcome when eaten. The false morel irritates the stomach and the GI tract causing abdominal cramping, vomiting and watery diarrhea that can last up to 5 days. In severe poisoning, the symptoms can even progress to seizures and possible coma. If you are going to forage for mushrooms, you must educate yourself on the subject, ideally with a trained mycologist.

Black Morel photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

False Morel – photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Hemlock:

Hemlock has had a bad reputation throughout history. It was the poison that was used to execute Socrates – he was forced to drink a hemlock laced beverage which caused his death. Although the plant is native to Europe, it was brought to the United States and is now found throughout the country near fences, roadsides, abandoned construction sites, and in pastures and fields. There are two types of hemlock: poison and water hemlock. Water hemlock is more toxic than poison hemlock. The visual differences between the two are subtle involving the stems and the leaves, but they are both crowned with a delicate, lacey white flower. Hemlock poisoning is more commonly a problem for livestock if it is in the fields where cows are grazing. Our recent calls involve families hiking with small children. Children love to pick flowers and, of course, sometimes this ends up in their mouths. The plant has an unpleasant taste, so usually the child begins to spit it out. Fortunately, there have been no serious symptoms in our recent cases, all have been managed at home with phone follow-ups and minimal symptoms.

Common Water Hemlock photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Wild Onion and Wild Garlic:

Wild onions and wild garlic both grow throughout Missouri. They grow more quickly than grass, so they are often considered weeds by homeowners who want an even, manicured lawn. Both are edible and used as seasoning or even for pickling. Livestock will graze on the plants if present in the pasture, and ingesting the wild plants can impart a garlic-like flavor and odor on the dairy and beef products. 

The concern is there are look-alike plants which get confused for being wild onion or garlic:  Star of Bethlehem, False Garlic (also known as Crow Poison), and Death Camas. All grow in pastures and have known problems with livestock, but they can also cause uncomfortable symptoms in humans such as: upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea after ingestion. Death Camas can cause more serious symptoms such as decrease in the heart rate, sweating, weakness, and changes in the heart rhythm. An easy way to tell the difference between the false plant from the real plant is by a smell test. True wild onion and garlic have a strong garlic-onion odor, while the false plants do not. Before eating, make sure it has that familiar smell.

Star of Bethlehem

False Garlic, Crow’s Poison – photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Wild Berries:

There are many wild berries in the state of Missouri such as wild strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, and gooseberries. Berry season starts in June and goes through early fall. The berries mentioned above are all edible, but the wild version may look and taste different from those found in grocery stores which are “cultivated” and grown to be bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild counterparts. 

Dewberries – photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Gooseberries

In addition to edible wild berries, there are also plants that grow berries that are NOT edible and can even be toxic. Most of these berries are not highly toxic, and the degree of symptoms seen will depend on the type of berry eaten and the quantity consumed.  Examples of some berries that should not be eaten are black nightshade, holly berries, and pokeweed berries.  Children are most at risk for having adverse symptoms from potentially toxic berries because it is part of their nature to explore their surroundings by tasting things.  Be sure to provide close supervision if you are taking young children berry picking to avoid an accidental poisoning.

Pokeweed Berries

Holly Berries photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

For any questions or concerns about wild plants around Missouri, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential.

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