Can you spot the poisonous plant?

is this plant poisonous
Photo: Gunnar Pippel/Shutterstock

Do you know how to tell if a plant is poisonous? That may not seem important until you're hiking (or lost!) in the woods and realize you left the trail mix in the car. Test your knowledge about what's safe to eat in the great outdoors. But a word of caution before you start: This isn't intended to be used as a field guide.

Question 1 of 15

Score: 0

plant oozing milky sap
Photo: Steve Schoenig/CAL Photos
It’s OK to eat a plant with milky or discolored sap.

Step away from that sap. Euphorbia (spurge), shown above, is an example of a plant with a milky discolored sap that is not OK to eat.

Question 2 of 15

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silver-leaf nightshade with nettles
Photo: mikeumo/flickr
Stay away from plants with spines, fine hairs or thorns.

While not all spiny, hairy or thorny plants are poisonous, in general it’s a good idea to avoid them. The silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) shown here, for example, is in the same family as tomatoes and potatoes but produces a fruit that is quite poisonous. The plant is covered with tiny needle-like nettles.

Question 3 of 15

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castor plant with pods
Photo: Randy Read/flickr
It’s always safe to eat plants that produce beans, seeds inside pods or bulbs.

The attractive ornamental tropical castor bean plant, from which castor oil is made, contains the toxic protein ricin. While all parts of the plant are poisonous, the seeds, which are produced inside an oblong, spiny pod (shown here), are the most dangerous.

Question 4 of 15

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plant with carrot-like leaves
Photo: brewbooks/flickr
Plants with foliage resembling leaves on dill, carrots, parsnips or parsley are reliably safe to eat.

Poison hemlock (a plant, not the hemlock tree), shown here, has leaves that resemble those of parsley or carrots and smell like parsnips until they are crushed. Then they take on a mouse-like odor. The entire plant, which grows 3- to 6-feet tall, is toxic.

Question 5 of 15

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poison ivy
Photo: Michael Bentley/flickr
Bypass all plants that have three leaves.

You should know to stay away from poison ivy (above). But both white clover (Trifolium repens) and red clover (T. praetense) are safe to eat and they have three leaves. They can be used in salads, for example.

Question 6 of 15

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green plant
Photo: MIMOHE/Shutterstock
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) has earned a bad reputation with gardeners because it tends to show up uninvited in their carefully cultivated rows. That’s somewhat unfortunate, because it is a beneficial “weed” that is a wild edible. Young leaves, which have a mild flavor when picked before the stem becomes woody, can be eaten raw or sautéed. They can even be used to make tea. Seeds are edible whole or ground into meal. Pigweed is common along roadsides and ditch banks and in disturbed open areas such as cultivated fields, orchards and vineyards. The plant is high in nitrates, which increase as the plant matures. The highest levels of nitrates are reached just before the plant flowers. The plant gets its name from its use as a forage plant for pigs. Like pigweed, the other plants listed are not poisonous either.

Question 7 of 15

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green plant
Photo: John R. Gwaltney/Southeastern Flora
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) looks just like its cultivated counterpart found in the produce section of your grocery store. Look for it along ditches, fence lines, open fields and railroad tracks. If you find it on private property be sure to ask for permission before picking. Also, be careful to only harvest asparagus from areas that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. Because you likely won’t be the only person looking for this delicacy, it’s helpful to locate patches of it in the fall (mature plants will be large and have fern-like leaves with an orange-yellow color as they go dormant) and return early in the spring to harvest. Asparagus is delicious boiled, steamed, roasted or grilled. Like wild asparagus, the other plants listed are not poisonous.

Question 8 of 15

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plant in wetlands
Photo: Skorpionik00/Shutterstock
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Two types of cattails grow in North America Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia. The main difference in the two species is in the width of the leaves. T. Latifolia has a broad leaf and T. Angustifolia has a narrow leaf. Cattails are common in fresh water wetlands throughout North America. Roots, new shoots and the familiar flower heads are edible in both species. There is also a medicinal use. Chopped roots are said to help soothe the pain of burns and minor cuts. Like cattails, common reeds are not poisonous, but blue flags and yellow flags are toxic.

Question 9 of 15

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flowering ground cover-like plant
Photo: Gary J. Wood/flickr
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Crown vetch is an excellent ground cover where erosion is a problem, but it's poisonous to horses. Meanwhile, the clovers (Trifolium repens, white clover and T. pretense, red clover) are just misunderstood. Clover is a member of the pea family and has nutritional value. Like clovers, wood sorrel and Irish shamrock are not poisonous.

Question 10 of 15

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yellow flower
Photo: ranti/flickr
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Humans have eaten dandelions (Taraxum officinale) throughout much of recorded history. All parts are edible! The leaves (best in spring) can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed like spinach. Blanching them will remove or lessen their bitter taste. Flower petals can be combined with citrus to make dandelion wine. Roots (best in fall) can be boiled or roasted and ground to make caffeine-free dandelion coffee. Dandelions can be identified by their leaves, which are long, skinny and pointed with irregular and pointed lobes. There are no poisonous look-alikes. Dandelions, a lawn weed to many, will regenerate if the tap root is left intact when harvesting stems, leaves and flowers. In this list, only the garden mum is poisonous.

Question 11 of 15

Score: 0

white mushroom
Photo: Wikipedia
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

There is a reason foragers are urged to be able to identify the destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera and Amanita virosa) before collecting any white-gilled mushroom. It is one of the world’s two deadliest mushrooms. The other is the death cap. Eating just one of either can be fatal. Amanita species have a relationship to tree roots. The destroying angel can be found in or near the edges of woodlands or in proximity to trees or shrubs in meadows. It also may pop up in the vicinity of trees in suburban lawns and landscapes. It can be fatal to pets. In its early stages, it resembles the puffball mushroom which — like the button mushroom — isn't poisonous. The meadow mushroom, however, is toxic.

Question 12 of 15

Score: 0

vine plant with fruit
Photo: Justin Tso/flickr
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) is a climbing vine native to Eastern North America that can clamber along as far as 40 feet. It produces berries that have a flavor that varies from sweet-tart to sweet but somewhat musky. The taste is said to be better than the berries of other wild grapes. It is often a parent of commercially grown grape cultivars such as Concord that show up on grocery store shelves as jams and jellies. Fox grape berries mature into edible grapes in late summer or fall, are bluish-black and have two to six seeds. Look for the vines in sandy thickets, edges of sandy woodlands, riverbanks and beside roads and railroad tracks. Like fox grape, muscadine isn't poisonous. But stay away from toxic Virginia creeper and Canada moonseed.

Question 13 of 15

Score: 0

plant that looks like a small tree
Photo: Dendroica cerulea/flickr
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), as its name implies, is highly toxic to both humans and animals. It grows to 11 feet tall with a branching effect that can give it the appearance of a small tree. It is widespread, growing along roadsides, stream banks, ditches and fields in all regions of the country except desert areas. To identify it, look at its stems and leaf stalks (petioles). On poison hemlock, they are hairless and have distinctive purple spots or blotches. The plant can have an unpleasant smell variously described as “old” or “mouse-like” when bruised. It is not related to the evergreen hemlock tree. Queen Anne’s lace is a non-poisonous look-alike. Wild parsnip and tree fern are not poisonous.

Question 14 of 15

Score: 0

green plant with purple undertone
Photo: Wikipedia
What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

The ramp (Allium Tricoccum), commonly called plural ramps, is a wild onion native to North America. It grows from South Carolina into Canada but only in higher elevations in the lower part of its range. Ramps are among the first edible plants to emerge in the spring and were traditionally welcomed as the season’s first greens, especially in areas where people didn’t have access to fresh vegetables during the winter. Also known as a wild leek, the flavor and odor is what you would get if you could combine onions and garlic into one plant. The aroma is strong enough that collectors find themselves rolling down the windows on the drive home! On this list, only lilies of the valley are poisonous.

Question 15 of 15

Score: 0

What is this plant, and is it poisonous?

White mustard (Synapsis alba) has culinary and medicinal uses. Its seeds can be ground to make the type of yellow mustard so familiar to Americans. Its leaves can be used in salads or cooked and eaten as a vegetable. As a medicinal plant, the seeds are used to prevent infection, induce vomiting, as a diuretic to improve urine flow, and to increase appetite. It is commonly found in fields and along roadsides. Some people like to grow it in home gardens where it can easily be grown from seed. Leaves are picked while the plants are young — and before they take on a bitter taste. None of the plants on this list are toxic.

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is this plant poisonous
Photo: Gunnar Pippel/Shutterstock
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