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:
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.
Here's Atropa belladonna in its natural habitat, those deadly berries glistening in the sunlight. If I came across this on a hike, I'd steer well clear.
Photo by H. Zell. Wikimedia Commons pic.twitter.com/drjn9wzjWG
— This Podcast Will Kill You (@tpwky) March 24, 2019
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.
Here is the flower of our Cherry Laurel hedge. Tiny flowers within a larger blossom. The hedge will later produce cherries which are unfortunately toxic. I am surprised how many flowers are categorised as toxic to humans and animals. A survival tactic? INB! pic.twitter.com/gZHtNuc68o
— Autism, Mindfulness & Nature 🇺🇦 (@autisticgardens) March 31, 2022
We continue to get a number of calls for 𝗶𝗻𝗴𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗖𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗿𝘆 𝗟𝗮𝘂𝗿𝗲𝗹 𝗕𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗶𝗲𝘀. 𝗗𝗢 𝗡𝗢𝗧 𝗲𝗮𝘁 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗽𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗻𝘁. All parts of the cherry laurel including leaves, bark, stems are toxic to humans. https://t.co/m1f84D6u91 pic.twitter.com/WkF1ED1VGL
— BC Drug and Poison Information Centre (@BCDPIC) September 17, 2020
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.
Mistletoe is a symbol of Christmas, we all know about kissing under the mistletoe. But there's much more to this pretty parisitic plant. Find out more about the legends behind it and the benefits it brings to wildlife >>https://t.co/g5b9IzY5yR pic.twitter.com/Ky0I1OurBI
— The Wildlife Trusts (@WildlifeTrusts) December 13, 2019
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.
Chevrefeuille à balais pic.twitter.com/shhZR7Xtjp
— Otis the Twitarist (@FabriceMartinet) April 18, 2022
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.
— Christophe 👊✊🏽🇫🇷R! (@forzalillois59) April 9, 2021
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.
Un brin de muguet traditionnel pour vous souhaiter un bon premier mai. Bon week-end tout le monde !
— ALK 🇫🇷 (@alk_info) May 1, 2021
Ricinus communis – Le 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.
On démarre la semaine avec le Ricin !
Connu et utilisé depuis des millénaires, il orne nos jardins publics… Les fans de Breaking Bad le savent, sa graine contient une toxine mortelle : la ricine. Elle est impliquée dans la célèbre affaire du parapluie bulgare (1978)..#PhytoFact pic.twitter.com/JsBGuOTfZV
— Jardin Dominique Villars (@JardinVillars) June 11, 2019
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.
Foxglove. Digitalis purpurea (1 of 2). Up to 200cm. Hairy. Unbranched. Leaves alternate, up to 30cm, oval, pointed and wrinkled. Tubular-bell shaped flowers usually pinkish-purple up to 55mm, dark spots inside. 4 stamens. Fruit is an oval capsule. 20-80 seed heads per spike pic.twitter.com/VPvPf6BRRG
— big meadow search (@bigmeadowsearch) July 31, 2022
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.
Et première identification d’un Vérâtre blanc en fleur. Attention, poison ! pic.twitter.com/7QT3tKAMln
— Aspérule (@Taltyelemna) July 17, 2020
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.
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.