Green Patch: 3 Toxic Plant Lookalikes

Avoid these poisonous plants that look like garden favorites.


| June/July 2011



green patch group shot 1

You can tell the difference between the toxic daffodil (Narcissus spp.), at right, and garlic (Allium sativum), at left, by using your sense of smell. Daffodils have none of the characteristic sulfur odor.

Photos by Susan A. Roth (left) and Rob Cardillo (right)

Q. I’m afraid of mixing up edible plants with toxic ones. Any tips?

A. During the winter and early spring, before plants mature in size and begin to bloom, it is easy to misidentify the green friends and foes. Even well-seasoned gardeners and naturalists can be fooled by the foliage of new growth. In my herb garden, I allow volunteer seedlings from established plants and gifts brought to the garden by birds, roving mammals and the wind. In wild, uncultivated spaces, diversity reigns. While the “innocent-until-proven-guilty” policy can be rewarding, to stay safe one must be certain of the identity of botanicals before ingest-ing them—some useful herbs have harmful lookalikes.

Four herbs that have similarly shaped wooly leaves are comfrey (Symphytum officinale), Russian comfrey (S. ×uplandicum), wild comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). It is easy to confuse these plants in the early spring. They all have hirsute leaves and like to grow near trees and in humus-rich soil.

(See a photo of the deadly foxglove and the edible comfrey.) 

All of these plants that share the common name comfrey have been used medicinally in folk traditions. Symphytum poultices and infusions have been used externally to treat bruises and sprains. Home herbalists who choose to drink the tea or swallow any part of the plants should be warned that Symphytum comfrey contains dangerous pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are toxic to the liver. Internal use of these plants is not recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and, since July 2001, products that were meant to be taken internally that contained comfrey and other plants with pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been removed from the market. Nevertheless, some people continue to use comfrey internally.

Wild comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum) is native to eastern U.S. deciduous forests. Though it is listed on the FDA Poisonous Plant Database, I was unable to find any documentation of human fatalities from eating, drinking an infusion or smoking the leaves of this plant. Wild comfrey is listed in A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) by Steven Foster and James Duke as an herb used by Native Americans and by herbalists in the 19th century as a substitute for Symphytum.





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