Whenever you’re out foraging for edible plants or tasty mushrooms, there’s a risk of picking and eating the wrong plant. Making a mistake while foraging for wild plants can kill you – so it’s important to know what you’re doing! In some cases, eating the wrong parts of the plant can even be dangerous or deadly.
We actually didn’t include a few pretty dangerous plants in this list! That’s because we’ve already covered giant hogweed and other plants that burn you in another series of posts. The plants on this list are generally only dangerous if you eat them, whereas giant hogweed and the other plants listed in those posts can cause serious burns if you even touch them!
It’s important to do some in-depth research that’s specific to your area to ensure that you’re familiar with all the deadly plants near you. If you’re not 100% sure what a plant is, don’t eat it.
Akar Saga, Coondrimany, Coral Bead, Crab’s Eye, Gidee Gidee, Jequirity Pea, John Crow Bead, Love Pea, Prayer Bead, Ratti/Rettee/Retty, Rosary Pea, Weather Plant, Wild Licorice
Where it Grows: This plant is aggressively invasive, so it’s now found all over the tropics, including Florida. The plant has deep roots and can survive in a variety of different ecosystems.
What it Looks Like: This plant has long leaves with many tiny leaflets. It’s a climbing woody vine with small whitish, violet, or pink flowers. The seed pod is long and flat, curling back to reveal three to eight bright red seeds with black dots.
History: This plant has been used to kill cattle illegally in India. When properly treated and gathered, the plant is also used in teas and traditional medicines. Improper preparation can lead to death.
Toxin Name: Abrin, ribosome inhibiting protein
How it Kills You: The toxin in this plant, abrin, causes symptoms that are identical to ricin (the poison brought to fame thanks to Breaking Bad). Even 0.1mg can kill a 150-pound adult human. Ingesting intact seeds can be harmless because the toxin is inside the seed. Symptoms of abrin poisoning include nausea and vomiting, convulsions, liver failure, and eventual death.
Aconite, Blue Rocket, Devil’s Helmet, Monkshood, Mousebane, Leopard’s Bane, Queen of Poisons, Wolfbane
Where it Grows: There are over 250 species in the Aconite genus. They mostly grow in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in mountain meadows.
What it Looks Like: This plant is tall with dark green, palmate leaves. The flowers are often blue or purple, but can also be yellow, pink, or white. They’re hood- or helmet-shaped. Fruits look like dried pea pods.
History: This plant was supposedly used to poison bait to kill wolves in Ancient Greece. Other species have been used to poison arrow tips to kill bears in Japan, ibex in Nepal, whales in Alaska, or for warfare in China.
Toxin Name: Aconitine, neurotoxin
How it Kills You: Death usually occurs within two to four hours of poisoning – eat enough, and this plant will kill an adult almost instantly. Touching this plant won’t kill you, but some people experience allergic reactions. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a sensation of burning or tingling or numbness around the mouth, and a burning feeling in the abdomen. You may also experience sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath, confusion, and headache. Eventually, the heart starts to beat erratically and eventually stops beating at all.
Richweed, White Sanicle, or White Snakeroot
Where it Grows: Eastern and central North America, especially in wooded areas
What it Looks Like: This flower, a relative of the daisy, grows up to 1.5 meters tall in single stalks or clumps. The plant blooms in summer or late fall, producing tiny white flowers that later produce fluffy white seeds that blow in the wind.
History: Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness, like many other European settlers at that time. It took many years before white snakeroot was rightly blamed for milk sickness. This plant is also sold as a decorative garden plant, especially prized for a variety that produces chocolatey brown leaves. Tea made from the root of this plants has been used medicinally to treat kidney stones, fever, and diarrhea.
Toxin: Tremetol and 11 other compounds
How it Kills You: This plant can cause milk sickness when cows eat the plant – the meat and the milk of the cow becomes poisonous. The plant is also poisonous to horses, goats, and sheep. Affected animals will be lethargic and may salivate, breathe shallowly, and/or drool. Humans affected by milk sickness will experience severe abdominal pain, nausea, cramping, vomiting, and trembling.
Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade, Death Cherries, or Devil’s Herb
Where it Grows: Deadly nightshade is native to temperate climates across Eurasia and North Africa, ranging from Britain to Ukraine. It has also been introduced to some parts of North America.
What it Looks Like: Deadly nightshade is related to tomatoes and eggplants. It grows as an herbacious plant up to two meters tall. The flowers are dull purple and bell-shaped, often with green tinting to them. The berries are shiny black when ripened, and sweet to the taste. Another variety of the plant has pale yellow flowers and berries.
History: This plant has been used in poison arrows, medicine, and cosmetics for thousands of years. Drops of the plant were used to dilate the pupils of women to make them more attractive. There are currently no accepted medicinal uses for the plant, though tinctures and powders derived from the plant are still commercially available. It is occasionally used as a recreational drug due to hallucinogenic properties, but dosages easily turn deadly and hallucinations from deadly nightshade are described as frightening and unpleasant.
Toxin Name: Several different types of tropane alkaloids
How it Kills You: This plant is one of the most toxic plants known to the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant are toxic, and honey made from deadly nightshade leaves can also contain the tropane alkaloids that make this plant dangerous. Ingesting deadly nightshade can cause slurred speech, delirium, convulsions, dry throat, blurred vision, staggering, headache, and more. Rabbits and cattle can apparently eat deadly nightshade without ill effect.
Where it Grows: Marshes and other wet areas in western North America, from Alaska to California.
What it Looks Like: Water hemlock is two to six feet tall with pinnately compound leaflets. The leaves have jagged edges and are two to four inches long. The flowers come in umbrella-shaped clumps of small white flowers. The plant can grow from seeds and root sprouts.
History: This species is commonly confused with wild parsnip as well as several other wild edible species.
Toxin Name: Cicutoxin, an unsaturated alcohol
How it Kills You: The roots of water hemlock are the most toxic part of the plant, but any part of the plant can kill. Very small amounts of the plant (0.1% in humans) can kill a person. This plant is also incredibly dangerous for grazing animals, which often eat the nice-smelling plant. Symptoms of cicutoxin poisoning include drooling, frothing at the mouth, nervousness, tremors, seizures, and respiratory failure. This plant can kill people and livestock within 15 minutes of ingestion.
Australian Carrot Fern, English Hemlock, Hemlock, Irish Devil’s Bread, Poison Hemlock, Poison Parsley, Spotted Corobane, or Spotted Hemlock
Where it Grows: This plant is native to Europe and North Africa, but can now be found across much of the world.
What it Looks Like: This plant has umbrella-like plumes of small, white flowers (not unlike those found in water hemlock or giant hogweed). It has pinnately compound leaves and goes to seed with many tiny brown seeds late in the summer.
History: This plant was used to kill Socrates after he was accused of impiety.
Toxin Name: Conium and coniine, alkaloids
How it Kills You: The toxins in poison hemlock can cause central nervous system failure and acute renal failure. Eating just six to eight leaves of this plant can be deadly (less if roots or seeds are eaten). Symptoms include vertigo, muscular paralysis, and eventual respiratory failure. There is no cure for poison hemlock, but some humans have survived thanks to artificial ventilation until the effects pass in two or three days.
Arali, Oleander, Rhodon, or Rose of Jericho
Where it Grows: This plant is so widespread that it’s unknown where it’s originally from. Known for beautiful flowers, this plant can be found from Sacramento to Greece in subtropical areas. This plant is very hardy in heat, salt, drought, and wind, but doesn’t do well in cold or frost.
What it Looks Like: This plant has showy and profuse blooms in a wide variety of colors, leading to its cultivation worldwide. It is a shrubby plant with many dark, slightly shiny leaves that are long, thin, and pointed.
History: This plant’s hallucinogenic effects made it popular with priests around the world. Its toxicity has also led this plant to be at the center of folklore and urban legends around the world.
Toxin Name: Oleandrin and oleandrigenin, among others. Cardiac glycosides.
How it Kills You: Death from this plant is relatively rare thanks to its bitter taste and that you must eat relatively large quantities of it to die. However, this plant can attack the gastrointestinal, nervous, and cardiac systems. Symptoms of poisoning from the oleander plant can include cramping, bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, cold and pale extremities, tremors, seizures, collapse, coma, and death.
Castor Bean, Castor Oil Plant, or Palm of Christ
Where it Grows: This plant is native to India, the Mediterranean, and eastern Africa, but it’s now found in many subtropical parts of the world.
What it Looks Like: This plant can vary greatly in appearance, especially given the many ornamental varieties available now. Castor bean is a fast-growing shrub that can be tree-like in ideal circumstances. Leaves are glossy, large, and starlike. They may be reddish, dark green, or purplish depending on variety and age. Flowers are spikey and can be a variety of different colors. The beans are spiny and greenish or reddish purple with the spotted (and highly poisonous) seed inside.
History: This plant can be medicinal when prepared properly. Historically, it was used for a variety of cosmetic and antihistamine purposes. Its oil was also used for lamps in ancient Egypt. Castor oil was also used to punish and intimidate during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. The “beans” of castor beans (which are actually seeds and not beans) are often used in jewelry.
Toxin Name: Ricin
How it Kills You: Overdosing on ricin (four to eight seeds for adults) can cause diarrhea, nausea, seizures, and even death. This generally only happens if you eat a cracked castor bean or chew the bean. It’s also possible to extract the ricin from the castor bean. It’s an incredibly toxic plant, but it’s relatively uncommon for people to die from eating castor bean.
Don’t skim through this list and head out to taste plants, assuming you’re safe! There are thousands of different dangerous plants out there. It’s probable that we don’t even know about all of them, especially in tropical rainforests. This list just covers some of the worst.
What deadly plants did we miss from your area?