There are many wild plants growing near your home which are edible and valuable in a survival situation. Some are relatively unknown, while others, like dandelion, are very well known. I’ve been taught about the edibility of dandelion since childhood and I’ve eaten it a few times. But I’ve really paid very little attention to the plant other than pulling the weeds from my yard as required by the HOA.
Did you know that there is a poisonous lookalike to dandelion? I didn’t. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have ended up accidently eating some of the poisonous plant in a survival situation. So, I thought I’d go over some of the backyard edible plants that have poisonous lookalikes and point out the differences for our benefit.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Vs. Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata)
Sometimes called false dandelion, cat’s ear is a similar plant that might be mistaken for dandelion at first glance. Both plants have similar rosette leaves, taproots, yellow flowers and both form heads of windborne seeds. However, there are differences in the leaves and stems, if you look closely.
Cat’s ear flowering stems are solid and forked, while dandelion flowering stems are hollow and unforked. Dandelion leaves are jagged and hairless in appearance, but cat’s ear has hairy lobe-shaped leaves.
Volunteer Tomatoes Vs. Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense) and Bitter Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
There are so many different tomato varieties on the market today that it would be very easy to mistake horse nettle for a wild tomato, especially if the fruit has already been picked. In fact, the horse nettle is a relative of the domestic tomato plants, but it has a much higher concentration of toxic alkaloids and can make you very ill.
Horse nettle flowers are white to purple, about 1 inch in diameter and form a 5-pointed star. The leaves are similar to red oak leaves with pointed lobes. Both the stems and leaves have spines. The fruit look like small yellow tomatoes. Domesticated tomato plants do not have thorns like those on the horse nettle stems, however, there is an edible wild tomato with spines called the litchi tomato, but it is a red tomato with yellow flesh inside.
Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, another poisonous relative of tomatoes, are red fruit that look like tiny tomatoes. The berries are soft and smell like tomatoes, but the fruit is only 1/2 inch long.
Related: How to Cook Spring Nettles
Wild Blueberries Vs. Tutsan Berries
Tutsan berries, Hypericum androsaemum, also known as Sweet Amber, are a potentially deadly lookalike that have spread throughout North America. The berries are similar to the wild blueberries that are so nutritious. Tulsan berries cause gastrointestinal problems, increased heart rate, weakness and other potentially deadly symptoms.
Sweet Amber blooms in the early summer through late summer, producing yellow flowers. The berries are white/green, turning red, then dark purple. Wild blueberries are dark blue when ripe.
Tutsan is a medicinal plant used for treating skin wounds and other medical conditions. In all situations it is important to know the plant before eating or using berries. Many berries are poisonous and easily mistaken for edible plants.
True Morels Vs. False Morels
Hopefully you already know to be very careful when foraging for mushrooms. There are so many varieties that can make you ill and some are deadly. We have been warned since childhood to always consult a mushroom expert. Yet, people still end up in the emergency room from eating the wrong mushrooms.
The false Morel is one that has the ability to put you there.False morels have a wrinkly cap that mimics the cap of a true morel. Morels have a naturally hollow stem and a well-attached cap, while the false morel has a solid stem.
However, a hollow stem cannot be taken as a certain sign of the real thing, since slugs or other critters may eat out the core of a false morel. Always consult a mushroom foraging expert before eating any wild mushrooms.
Wild Grapes Vs. Moon Seed
Moon Seed is a Canadian plant that has spread into the United States. It is a woody vine that looks very much like wild grapes. The fruit appear in bunches like grapes and can be easily mistaken for the edible wild grape.
Moon Seed has one identifying characteristic and the key is in its name. Its seed is shaped like a crescent moon. To identify the plant, take one of the grape-like berries and crush it.
Grapes have round seeds while moon seed has a definite crescent shape. If you live in an area where wild grapes grow, make a habit of crushing one grape before harvesting the vine. That way you’ll know you’re getting an edible grape. The leaves of this plant are also poisonous, so be careful when harvesting grape leaves in the spring.
Cat Tails Vs. Yellow Tail and Blue Tail Iris
Cat tails are wonderful survival plants if you live in an area where they grow. Every part of the plant is edible and it grows year-round. When the flower head is developed, it will be brown on a true cat tail. The plant has two lookalikes: the iris, which is poisonous, and the calamus, which is not. The plants are lookalikes for a short time in the spring before the seed heads form. The true cat tail quickly grows taller and more distinctive as the summer progresses.
There are two Iris that are potential lookalikes. Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) have leaves similar to the cat tail. However, the Iris leaves are flat and smooth at the base with no ribbing. The leaves fan out from the base. Cat tails have a mid-rib that forms around the stalk and the leaves do not form a fan. All members of the Iris family are poisonous.
Rhododendrons vs. Bay Leaves (Laurus nobilis)
Leaves of the ornamental rhododendron look very much like bay leaves; however, rhododendron plants are poisonous. A big danger with this plant is that the nectar is especially toxic, so honey made from the plant is also toxic. It can cause nausea, vomiting, and weakness. Be careful if you have bees nearby and plan to harvest honey.
Both bay trees and rhododendrons are often cultivated in the US, making misidentification more likely. The plants can sometimes be found growing side by side, making caution even more important.
The easiest way to tell the plants apart is by comparing the flowers. Bay trees usually bloom from May to June and have pink, yellow or white flowers.
Rhododendron blooms from June to July, so there may be some overlap, but rhododendron flowers grow in clusters of 10 to 20 bell-shaped flowers at the end of small branches. Flowers can be white, pink, lavender, or deep pink. Notice the difference in flower shapes below.
Wild Leek Vs. Anticlea Elegans
There are over 900 different species of wild garlic and wild onions that are edible and they are routinely collected and eaten.
A few varieties, however are deadly. Know as “death camas”, varieties of Anticlea or Toxicoscordion are similar plants with onion like bulbs, leaves, and flowers. These deadly lookalikes do not have the pungent onion or garlic smell that make the edibles so recognizable.
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