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8 Edible Plants With Potentially Deadly Doppelgängers

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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.

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).

2. WILD GRAPES VS. CANADIAN MOONSEED (OR ‘FOX GRAPES’).

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.

3. TRUE MORELS VS. FALSE MORELS.


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.

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.

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.

6. WILD BLUEBERRIES VS. TUTSAN (OR ‘SWEET AMBER’) BERRIES.

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.

7. WILD TOMATOES VS. HORSE NETTLES, BITTERSWEET NIGHTSHADE.


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.

8. BLACK NIGHTSHADE VS. DEADLY NIGHTSHADE.


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.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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Rare Banana From Japan Comes With a Peel That's Meant to Be Eaten
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It’s easy to see how someone could take issue with banana peels: They’re a major source of waste, it takes effort to peel them, and they’re always making people slip and fall (at least in 1920s slapstick gags). If you agree that the banana’s conventional covering leaves room for improvement, check out this Japanese alternative. As SoraNews24 reports, the Mongee banana from D&T Farm features a tender skin you can bite straight into and eat.

The Japanese food company grows the special fruit in the country’s Okayama Prefecture. Instead of cultivating them in a tropical climate that’s typical for the plant, D&T Farm freezes their saplings at -76°F. The frozen trees are then thawed and planted, which prompts a burst of rapid growth. The process is meant to awaken an ancient survival mechanism banana trees used to make it through the Ice Age. Not only does this allow farmers to grow bananas faster and in cooler climates, it also makes for a thinner, softer banana skin.

Mongee bananas are more pungent and stickier than regular bananas, thanks to their higher sugar content. To eat one whole, you first must wait for brown dots to appear on the skin, which indicate that it’s ripe. According to tasters at SoraNews24, the flesh of the fruit has a tropical taste similar to pineapples, while the peel is pretty much flavorless and easy to chew. According to D&T Farm, people who consume the peel get bonus doses of vitamin B6 and magnesium.

The fruits are only available at one store in Japan, and even if you’re able to get there you’ll have to snag one of the 10 bananas that arrive at the shop each week and pay roughly $5.75 for it. Of course you can always settle for eating the skin on a regular banana, which may be bitter and fibrous but still offers all the same health benefits.

[h/t SoraNews24]

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