France’s most toxic plants and berries to watch out for

Half of all the calls to Poison Control in France happen between June and September as people accidentally ingest toxic flowers, leaves or berries. Here are the plants you need to look out for.

France's most toxic plants and berries to watch out for
A sprig of Lily of the Valley or Muguet at the Henri IV retirement home in Toulouse, southern France, a tradition in France to mark May Day. (Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

Each year, Poison Control centres in France receive approximately 10,000 calls from people who have unintentionally come across toxic plants and fruits. 

The majority of calls to Poison Control centres tend to concern children, but adults find themselves mixing up safe and dangerous plants and berries too, particularly as it is possible for several parts of the plant to be dangerous. 

Here are the plants to avoid – and keep out of reach of children – in France:

Poisonous berries 

Atropa belladonna – The first of the poisonous berries to watch out for is La Belladone, or deadly nightshade as it is more commonly known in English. Though relatively rare in France, you might come across this plant in the Mediterranean basin or in the Alps. It primarily grows in limestone and clay soils in either the woods, clearings, or thickets. It is approximately a metre high (and can grow taller than that).

Usually the plant flowers in late spring, early summer – typically around the month of June.

The plant’s leaves are reddish-brown, and its flowers are bell-shaped. Once the berries appear, they are large, black and shiny. Behind the berries, you can see a five-pointed foliage. The berries themselves are about the size of a small cherry – about 1.5-2 cm in diameter.

How toxic? This plant contains atropine. It is very toxic and can be deadly for children if just 2-5 berries are ingested, and about 10-15 berries for adults.

Prunus laurocerasus L – known in French as le laurier-cerise and in English as either laurel, almond laurel or palm laurel – this plant is an evergreen shrub. It is often planted in parks and gardens, and can reach up to five to six metres in height. It is particularly known for its leaves, which are shiny and dark green. 

The plant’s flowers bloom in the spring, typically in April and May, and they are typically white and small, grouped together in a long cluster. 

The berries develop in late summer or early fall. They are drupes (fleshy fruits containing a pit) of black colour, and the fruit is also grouped in clusters.

How toxic? The severity of symptoms depends on the quantity ingested, but the poisoning can be fatal – for humans, as well as other creatures, such as horses. 

Viscum album – Mistletoe: the kissing plant we hang above our doorways during the Christmas season, is actually poisonous.

In French, this is called le gui or bois de Sainte Croix. This plant was previously used in pagan rituals to signify male fertility, and it is indigenous to Europe and the British isles. 

How toxic? European mistletoe is more toxic than the American species. Ingesting the white berries or seeds can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and in rare cases it can also lead to paralysis, cardiac arrest or death by asphyxiation. So keep it away from animals and children during your New Year festivities.

Lonicera xylosteum – This plant is known as Chèvrefeuille à balais in French, and ‘fly honeysuckle’ in English.

It is a shrub that grows to about one to two metres in height. It bears red berries after sprouting white flowers. It is important to distinguish between the flower and the nectar included therein versus the berries produced (which can be toxic). Usually, the flowers become berries in the fall.  

How toxic? The glossy red (or occasionally yellow) berries of this shrub are mildly poisonous to humans – children who ingest a large number of berries may experience abdominal pain and vomiting. Different species of honeysuckle range in toxicity.

Plants and flowers

Nerium oleander – This beautiful, pink flower is typically found in the South of France, and it is actually sometimes used as rat poison.

How toxic? All parts of the plant contain “oleandrin” which is toxic. Ingestion, even at low doses can be fatal. Even a few leaves can kill an adult. It is particularly important to be able to distinguish this plant from the Laurus nobilis, known in French as Laurier-sauce, which produces bay leaves that can be used in cooking.

Convallaria majalis – The lily of the valley, or le muguet, in French, is very popular on May 1st, or Worker’s Day. It is also toxic to ingest, and should be kept out of reach from children and pets. It is a woodland plant that blossoms with small white flowers. 

How toxic? Ingesting this plant – even the water of a vase having contained the plant – causes nausea, headaches, diarrhoea and in rare cases even cardiac disorders that can lead to death. It is most dangerous for small children and pets, but adults should be careful as well.

Ricinus communisLe ricin, known as a castor bean shrub in English, is a plant gardeners love for its beautiful touches of colour.

Originally a tropical plant, you might come across this in gardens in France. It reaches a height of 4 to 12 metres, and is known for its large purple-green leaves and red. spiked fruits. Inside the fruits, there is a nut called the castor bean, which can be used to make the deadly poison ricin. 

As castor oil is used in soaps, cosmetics, and even as a food preservative. 

How toxic? Lethal doses of castor bean vary from 3 to 8 seeds, depending on the person and their age.

Digitalis purpurea – Known as foxglove or purple foxglove, is toxic and can even be deadly. Unfortunately, it is easily confused with ‘Common comfrey’ which is used in some homeopathic treatment.

In French, foxglove is called la digitale pourpre. It is known for having tubular shaped flowers of purple colouring. It is native to Europe. 

How toxic? All parts of the foxglove plant are toxic. If ingested, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness or restlessness, headaches, or visual disturbances may be observed. In the most serious cases, a slowing down of the cardiac rhythm until the heart stops can occur.

Veratrum album – White veratrum, or le vératre blanc in French, is highly toxic because of the alkaloids contained mainly in its roots. It can easily be confused with the the ‘yellow gentian’ (Gentiana lutea), whose roots are used in the summer for preparing aperitifs, wines and liqueurs in France. White veratrum has notable star shaped white flowers with green in the centre.

How toxic? All parts of the plant are poisonous, including its aroma. There have been several reported accidental poisonings from this plant, most leading to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, sinus bradycardia, and hypotension.


France has a wide variety of mushrooms, some of which are delicious, some hallucinogenic and some simply fatal.

Mushroom foraging is a very popular pastime in the fall, but if you are not an expert then take your haul to the pharmacy before eating, as they can check that everything you have picked is safe.

READ MORE: What you need to know for safe and enjoyable mushroom picking in France

What to do if you think you have been exposed to a poisonous plant or fruit: 

First, you should keep children and pets away from all toxic plants and fruits. If you suspect poisoning, take a photo of the plant in question to help facilitate diagnosis. 

Experts also recommend not picking berries or flowers in large batches, in order to avoid potentially mixing toxic plants with non-toxic ones. Finally, it may seem like simple advice, but stop eating immediately if the plant has a foul or unpleasant taste.

If you know you or a child has been exposed to a toxic plant or fruit, call 15 or 112 immediately, especially if symptoms appear severe.

Gaël Le Roux, a clinical toxicologist, recommended in his article for The Conversation, that if a child has either “put leaves or berries in their mouth, rinse the inside of their mouth with a damp cloth, wash their hands, and call a poison control centre or consult a doctor in case of symptoms or at the slightest doubt regarding identifying whether or not the plant in question is toxic.”

It is best not to wait for symptoms to occur, and in the case of pets, contact a veterinary poison control centre immediately.  

If you are simply looking to identify whether a plant or fruit is toxic, you can ask a doctor or pharmacist. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


French doctors advise ‘be more Spanish’ as heatwaves continue

With a fourth summer heatwave on the horizon for France, French doctors are advising their compatriots to copy Spanish habits to deal with the high temperatures.

French doctors advise 'be more Spanish' as heatwaves continue

France has had a dangerously hot summer – one that emergency doctor, Patrick Pelloux, estimates will lead to “5,000 to 10,000 excess deaths” by the end of the season.

French weather forecaster Météo France has repeatedly sounded the alert for dangerously high temperatures via its heat alert system – as of Wednesday, 18 départements are on ‘orange’ alert for high temperatures.

As a result, several emergency medicine doctors have announced new recommendations to help the French adapt and stay safe in the warmer temperatures.

Interestingly enough, it might involve mimicking the behaviours of France’s neighbours to the south – known for their heat adapted lifestyles (e.g. the afternoon siesta).

French daily Le Parisien, has even published a map comparing temperatures in French cities to those in Spain:

Here’s how these doctors recommend the French become more Spanish:

Alter the daily routine – Spain is famous for its afternoon siestas and late evening meals. In France the classic apéro or ‘happy hour’ usually begins at about 5 or 6pm with dinner at 7pm or 8pm, but during the heatwave many bar owners are reporting that terraces are empty at 5pm, and only fill up from 9pm when the temperatures start to fall.

Pelloux recommended to Le Parisien that the French may need to begin adjusting their working hours to avoid the hottest part of the day, but continue until later in the evening.

Another emergency medicine doctor, Agnès Ricard-Hibon, who works as head of the Samu du Val-d’Oise emergency unit, told the newspaper: “It is logical that we imitate the Spanish rhythm.

“When it’s very hot, you have to get up earlier and take a break in the afternoon, especially if you’re a vulnerable person with a risk of complications due to dehydration.”

It might also be recommended to extend the classic 12-2pm shop and office closure and keep shops closed during the high heat of the early afternoon, and instead take evening strolls at 8pm, rather than earlier.

Pelloux said that as France transitions “from a temperate to a tropical climate, we will have to stop working between noon and 5 pm.” 

No more tanning and goodbye suits – With skin cancer on the rise in France, experts worry about the popularity of the tanning trend, particularly during the hottest parts of the day.

Emergency physician Christophe Prudhomme told Le Parisien that it might be necessary to “close beaches at the hottest times” in order to keep people safe from the heat.

He also said we might have to change our fashion habits – dark coloured clothing, such as suits, hold in heat on hot days. Prudhomme recommends embracing fashion trends with more breathable fabric, such as cotton or linen.

In Spain, prime minister Pedro Sanchez is leading the way by announcing that he will no longer wear a tie when the weather is hot.

Lighter lunches – Ricard-Hibo told Le Parisien that as the days go by, we must learn to accept the heat and lighten our lunches.

Other experts recommend eating lots of hydrating foods during heatwaves, so maybe this is your opportunity to test out a particularly tasty gazpacho for your midday meal. The Local Spain has some other delicious recommendations to test out during the hot weather. 

READ MORE: The best Spanish food and drink to keep you cool during the summer heat

What about the official governmental advice? 

Meanwhile, the French government’s official advice is of course to drink plenty of water, but it is also a bit contradictory to the gazpacho suggestion – in the graphic below, you can see the French government recommending regular meals to keep from feeling faint in the high temperatures.

The government also recommends keeping the shutters closed, avoiding alcohol (maybe go light on the sangria), and staying cool by ‘getting your body wet’ whether that be by jumping in a fountain or standing in a brumisateurs (the machine that pumps out water vapour).

Eat sufficient meals and shut the shutters – French government advice for staying cool in a heatwave