8 Edible Plants With Potentially Deadly Doppelgängers


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!


GDFL via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy fir0002; CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Jonathan Cardy

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).


CC 2.0 courtesy Wikimedia Commons // Flickr user Bob Peterson; CC 4.0 courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia user Nadiatalent

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.


CC 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Johannes Harnisch; CC 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Jason Hollinger

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.


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.


CC 4.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Natalie-S ; CC 2.0 Via Flickr // Courtesy Miguel Vieira

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.


CC 2.0 via Wikimedia // Courtesy Bjørn Tennøe; CC 2.0 via Flickr // Courtesy S. Rae

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.


CC 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy KENPEI; GNU Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Susan Sweeney; CC 4.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Isidre blanc

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.


CC 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy Harald Hubich; CC 3.0 Via Forest Images // Courtesy Jan Samanek

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.

Ice Water Games, YouTube
5 Smartphone Games That Let You Tend Plants and Chill Out
Ice Water Games, YouTube
Ice Water Games, YouTube

Being in nature is naturally relaxing, but city-dwellers don’t always have an opportunity to get outside. Gardening can be therapeutic for mental health, but you may not have access to a garden—or even the space to tend a houseplant. You can still have a few moments of horticultural meditation every day. It will just have to be digital.

Over the last few years, video game developers have released a number of mobile games that revolve around the simple act of tending to plants. These games are, for the most part, slow-moving, meditative experiences that focus on beautiful graphics, calming soundtracks, and low-key challenges. They’re a great way to de-stress and pursue your gardening dreams, no watering can required.

Here are five relaxing, plant-centric phone games you can download now.


Viridi is like Neopets for plants. The game is dedicated to nurturing a pot of succulents that grow almost in real time. You can plant a variety of succulent species in your virtual pot. Spritz your plants with water when they’re thirsty and wait for them to grow. Each week, a new seedling will be available for you to plant. The game moves slowly by design. You can let it run in the background, and your plants will do their thing, just like a real plant would. These ones are even harder to kill than real succulents, though.

Find it: iOS, Android

2. TOCA NATURE; $2.99

Toca Boca makes games for kids, but honestly, Toca Nature is pretty fun no matter what your age. You can create your own natural landscapes, adding trees, water features, and mountains. Different natural features attract different animals, and the type of landscape you make shapes whether you’ll get bears, beavers, or birds living there. You can collect berries, feed the animals, or just enjoy planting trees.

Find it: iOS, Android


In Breath of Light, your job is to bring a garden to life by manipulating a stream of light. Move rocks and mirrors around your zen garden to harness and direct the life-giving light emanating from a single flower. When the light hits another flower, it causes that plant to grow. The very simple puzzles are designed to help you chill out, and the award-winning soundtrack by the audio designer Winterpark features binaural tones that are naturally relaxing. “As a unique, gamified version of guided meditation, Breath of Light helps you enter a state of calm serenity without you even noticing,” according to Killscreen. Sorry, Android users—the app seems to have disappeared from Google Play, but it’s still available for iPhone.

Find it: iOS

4. PRUNE; $3.99

Prune is a puzzle game with a horticultural twist. The object is to plant a tree, then as it grows up, guide it with careful pruning, helping the branches reach the light while staying away from the cold shadows or hot sun, both of which will kill the tree. As the levels rise, you’ll need to contort your trees into ever more complex shapes.

Find it: iOS, Android

5. EUFLORIA; $4.99

If you like your gardening to be a little more high-stakes, Eufloria is out of this world. Seriously, it’s about colonizing asteroids. Your mission is to grow trees on far-off asteroids, sending your seedlings out to turn gray space rocks into thriving landscapes. Your seeds hop from asteroid to asteroid at your behest, creating a chain of fertile life. Sometimes, alien enemies will attack your flourishing asteroid colonies, but don’t worry; you can beat them back with the power of more seeds. The game can be fast-paced and competitive, but there’s a “relaxed” play option that’s more meditative.

Find it: iOS, Android

Big Questions
What Makes Tumbleweeds Tumble?

While most plants benefit from a sedentary lifestyle, a single tumbleweed can roll for miles across open terrain. In the video below, The Kid Should See This explains what makes these unusual weeds the lone wanderers of the West.

Think of a tumbleweed and you'll likely picture a plant that's already dead. The live version of a tumbleweed is called a Russian thistle. Like many other plants, it flowers and dies over the course of a season, but instead of relying on animals to disperse its seeds, it breaks off from its roots and plants the next generation itself. The wind carries the dried-out bush across barren landscapes where new seedlings can flourish without competition from grasses and other plants. As the weed bounces along, tiny seeds packed with coiled-up embryos sprinkle out from between its thorny leaves.

Though tumbleweeds may be an iconic symbol of the Wild West, they originated in Eastern Europe. They likely arrived as stowaways in shipments of flax seeds brought to the U.S. in the 19th century.

Some people living out west today aren't too fond of the European import. The California town of Victorville was recently invaded by tumbleweeds when wind gusts approaching 50 mph blew in from the Mojave Desert. In some cases the tumbleweeds clustered on doorsteps, trapping residents inside their homes.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]


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