Whether they’re grown in an urban garden, gathered along shady lanes, or desperately foraged from the smoking rubble in an end-of-days dystopia, everyone loves fresh fruits and veggies picked al fresco. Foragers of all stripes should be wary, though: some of nature’s most delicious and nutritious treats have very nasty lookalikes that will definitely not agree with you—or worse.
Here’re just a handful of the berries, greens, and other forest snacks you’ll want to learn to distinguish from their gastronomically evil twins before chowing down.
*Please Note: While using this article as a springboard into your new life as a foraging fan is encouraged, do not use it as a guide for identifying edible plants; plenty of great, comprehensive guides and wilderness education programs exist that can help you safely identify tidbits in the wild, and remember: if you’re not 100% positive, don’t eat it!
1. SWEET ALMONDS VS. BITTER ALMONDS.
You may know that all almonds—or Prunus dulcis—contain some amount of cyanide, which may explain the fact that many people think the poisonous chemical smells a bit like these nuts (cyanide doesn’t always have a scent, though). The sweet almonds that are bought, sold, and enjoyed in the U.S. and in most countries have only a negligible amount of cyanide in them, but bitter almonds—which are shorter and wider than their sweet cousins—can contain 42 times as much.
The LA Times explains that bitter almonds contain amygdalin, a “toxic compound … which serves as a chemical defense against being eaten” and “splits into edible benzaldehyde, which provides an intense almond aroma and flavor, and deadly hydrocyanic acid, a fast-acting inhibitor of the respiratory system.”
This high cyanide content means that children can be fatally poisoned by eating just five to ten bitter almonds, and adults by eating around 50. Even a handful of bitter almonds can lead to dizziness or vertigo, weakness, difficulty breathing, and numerous other symptoms in adults. But besides usually having a strikingly bitter taste, bitter almonds also tend to come from trees with pink blossoms, while white-blossomed trees tend to grow the sweeter and safer variety (though blossom color can still vary).
2. WILD GRAPES VS. CANADIAN MOONSEED (OR ‘FOX GRAPES’).
The Vitis, or grapevine genus, contains around 60 species that tend to feature roots, trunks, vines, leaves, and berries (a.k.a. grapes). Most species can be found in North America and Asia (with a few in Europe), and V. aestivalis, V. rupestris, and V. labrusca are just a few of the grapevines that grow in the wild and produce fruit that’s edible for most mammals across the U.S.
However, wild grapes have a deadly imposter (from the human perspective, at least): Menispermum canadense, or “Canadian moonseed,” produces fruit so similar in appearance to grapes and other pleasant edibles that it can blend in with the Vitis bunch if you’re not careful. The plant is toxic for humans from root to leaf-tip, and its moonseed berries—which have a single, crescent-shaped seed each, unlike grapes’ round ones—can easily prove fatal when eaten due to their toxic lode of dauricine.
Beyond the shapes of their seeds, Canadian moonseed and wild grape plants have notable differences that can help a careful forager. For one thing, moonseed vines don’t have the forked tendrils that grapevines do. Moonseeds also reportedly taste just awful (generally speaking, this is a good sign you should spit something out). Native American groups have used parts of the plant in preparing laxatives, skin treatments, and other remedies, but even the hungriest hiker should steer well clear of this plant.
3. TRUE MORELS VS. FALSE MORELS.
If you’re thinking about hunting prized mushrooms of the Morchella genus (a.k.a. “true morels”), be careful before you pick these. True “sponge mushrooms” and “hickory chickens” can look a lot like members of the Verpa genus, or the Gyromitra esculenta mushroom, a species included in the often poisonous “false morels” group.
Among other things, false morels can have a "brainy" surface that makes them look a bit like their "true" cousins, and they show up in the same wooded areas slightly earlier in the season than Morchellas do. Careful observers can differentiate between the true morels’ pitted or web-like caps and the merely wrinkled ones of false morels, however. A naturally hollow stem and a well-attached cap are also telltale signs of a true morel, Michigan Morels explains. (It's worth noting that slugs can eat the interior of a false morel, making it look hollow as well.)
True morels have shown to be much safer and more gastrointestinally tolerable to most eaters than the vast majority of false ones, but they should still be cleaned and cooked before consumption. Tolerance of mushrooms’ inherent toxicities can vary widely, so remember to take things slow and do ample research beforehand as you explore these delicacies.
4. WILD CARROT AND PARSNIP VS. HEMLOCK.
Yeah, that hemlock: Conium maculatum, the poisonous perennial which, when prepared in liquid form, was both Socrates’ method of self-execution and the likely source of all of Hamlet’s problems (well, many of them) when it was dripped into his daddy’s ear.
Don’t hold that against the rest of the Apiaceae family, though; it’s about 3,700 strong, and includes everything from cumin, cilantro, and dill to carrots, celery, and parsnips—most of which you can safely munch on after a grocery store haul or right in their natural habitats. However, the above-ground plants of wild carrots (Daucus carota, widely known as Queen Anne's Lace) and parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) can look a lot like hemlock’s, and the roots below can appear similar, too (especially when they’ve just been pulled out of the ground).
For the record, wild parsnip poses its own threat, too. Especially during flowering season, its sap can cause skin reactions which can range from a simple rash to something very much like a lasting, second-degree burn. So if you do go root-hunting (staying well clear of hemlock, of course), you’ll do well to use gloves and skin-covering clothing whenever possible.
5. WILD GARLIC VS. DEATH CAMAS, LILIES, AND FALSE GARLIC.
Hundreds of species in the onion or Allium genus—including garlic, chives, scallion, leek, and many others—grow wild throughout Asia, Europe, and North and South America, and have been used in traditional medicine for millennia.
If you’re gathering something like A. ursinum (often called “wild garlic” or “wood garlic”) for your wild veggie fry-up, be sure no Anticlea or Toxicoscordion species (formerly Zigadenus, in many cases) have snuck into your harvest. Also known as “death camas,” these wild flowering plants can look a lot like the up to 900 wild onion, garlic, and leek species that may grow nearby, but these are extremely poisonous to humans (and often livestock).
While they may have Allium’s approximate size and shape, there are differences between the plants. For example, imitators will not have the potent smell that wild onion and garlic are known for.
6. WILD BLUEBERRIES VS. TUTSAN (OR ‘SWEET AMBER’) BERRIES.
Wild blueberries are found throughout North America and Europe (in Europe, wild blueberries are actually bilberries), and are part of the proud Vaccinium genus, which also boasts cranberries and grouseberries. And while wild blueberries are smaller than most cultivated ones, proponents will argue that the wild versions of the fruit can often contain more vitamins and antioxidants than their store-bought brethren.
However, wild blueberries have a potentially deadly lookalike that’s spread from its native Eurasian zones to New Zealand, Australia, and North America. The black berries of Hypericum androsaemum, a.k.a. tutsan or “sweet amber” bushes, can do a decent blueberry impression but can cause gastrointestinal distress, weakness, raised heart-rate, and other symptoms in both people and animals, and especially in children.
In general, eager berry-pickers should do some careful research before foraging in the wild, as a wide variety of berries are moderately to highly toxic, including strychnine tree berries, and holly berries.
7. WILD TOMATOES VS. HORSE NETTLES, BITTERSWEET NIGHTSHADE.
The genus Solanum contains a diverse array of as many as 2,000 species, including S. lycopersicum (the common cultivated tomato), S. tuberosum (potato), and S. melongena (eggplant)—all of which are members of the Solanaceae, or “nightshade,” family.
The Solanum pimpinellifolium plant, or “currant tomato,” originated in South America and can still be found growing wild in supportive climates throughout the Americas. It’s also the species from which all cultivated tomatoes are descended, and has a “[mild] and slightly sweet” flavor in its own right.
Unfortunately, S. carolinense, or “horse nettle” berries that can be found throughout North America as well as in Australia, Europe, and Asia, can look like a wild tomato to a hungry hiker, and their ingestion can cause “fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and occasionally death.” The berries of S. dulcamara, or “bittersweet nightshade,” have a similar appearance to small wild or cultivated tomatoes, and can cause illness and—though not in recent record—death.
8. BLACK NIGHTSHADE VS. DEADLY NIGHTSHADE.
In their fully ripened state, Solanum nigrum, or “black nightshade,” berries are enjoyed in stews, desserts, and even their raw form. (However, they’re toxic to eat before they're ripe. Also, black nightshade in one area could be delightful, but the same species in another area could make you sick. So it’s best to ask an expert to help you out.) These berries got a bad rap in medical texts for hundreds of years (and sometimes still do) due to their similarity in both appearance and common name to Atropa belladonna, or “deadly nightshade” berries, which are among the most toxic in the wild.
Like many toxic plants, deadly nightshade has served various religious and medicinal purposes in its native zones of Europe, Asia, Africa, and parts of North America throughout the ages, and it is still a vital source of the chemical atropine. The plant’s tropane alkaloids are hard-hitting and highly poisonous, however, and can lead to hallucination, dizziness, tachycardia, and death.