Beware of Mixing Up Types of Vegetables

Mixing up different types of leaf vegetables, herbs and lettuces with toxic plants (weeds) repeatedly results in poisonings and even deaths. Every year, individual cases are reported in which people have not only picked and consumed edible plants, but also accidentally poisonous ones because they looked very similar or because they lacked the knowledge to distinguish between plants. Rocket and groundsel, leafy goosefoot and thorn apple leaves, wild garlic and lily of the valley/autumn crocus/arum are often confused with each other, for instance.

Toxic plants are found everywhere in nature and can grow “in the wild” in vegetable patches. Sometimes, they are also brought to the cultivation area through contaminated seed materials. Thus, consumers should be very careful when growing vegetables they do not know much about.

However, poisonings are not unique to leaf vegetables, but can also occur through fruit vegetables in individual cases. Particular attention should be paid when growing pumpkins or courgettes: fruit not fit for consumption could produce bitter substances (noticeable by the bitter taste) that are harmful to the intestine if people grow new plants from the seeds of harvested plants (e.g. backcrossing with wild species such as ornamental pumpkins and gourds or spontaneous reversion into the wild plant type).

Poisonings resulting from contaminated food have also been observed in cereal products: several cases of poisoning caused by millet and buckwheat products contaminated with thorn apple seeds have been reported in recent years.

What consumers should pay attention to

  • Check for and remove unfamiliar plant parts and plant parts that cannot be attributed to edible plants when harvesting lettuces, leave vegetables and herbs.
  • Do not eat familiar vegetables that do not taste as they should, such as bitter courgettes or pumpkins.

What to do when poisoning symptoms appear

Possible symptoms of poisoning are: reduced saliva, dry mouth, dry and red skin, gastrointestinal pain, pupillary dilation, drowsiness, visual impairment, palpitations, disorientation and hallucinations. These effects will show rather quickly (5 to 30 minutes) after ingestion. If such symptoms occur after the consumption of food that may possibly be contaminated, contact a physician immediately. Any food leftovers or the packaging of the product used to make the food should be sent to the appropriate local food authority (see contacts). More information in cases of suspected poisoning is provided by the Austrian Poison Information Centre (Vergiftungsinformationszentrale; VIZ) of Gesundheit Österreich GmbH (GÖG) at: +43 1 406 43 43.

Further information

AGES experts work on the identification and analysis of toxic plants in both the fields of food safety and seed material testing.

• AGES information: Stechapfel-Pflanze (Thorn apple)
• AGES information: Tropanalkaloide (Tropane alkaloids)
• AGES information: Vorsicht bei bitteren Zucchini und Kürbissen (Beware of bitter courgettes and pumkins)
• AGES information: Bärlauch, Vorsicht vor giftigen Doppelgängern (wild garlic, beware of toxic lookalikes)
• AGES Geschäftsfeld Lebensmittelsicherheit (Food Safety Division)
• AGES Institute for Seed and Propagating Materials, Plant Protection Service and Bees
• Contact Austrian Poison Information Center and telephone +43 1 406 43 43

Groundsel. Leaves could be confused with rocket.
Leafy goosefoot with fruit. The plant’s leaves can be mixed up with those of thorn apples.
Thorn apple with flower.
Wild garlic leaf in comparison to autumn crocus and lily of the valley.
Bärlauch Doppelgänger