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. 

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French baguette gets UNESCO world heritage status

The French baguette - one of the country's most abiding images - was given world heritage status by UNESCO on Wednesday, the organisation announced.

French baguette gets UNESCO world heritage status

More than six billion baguettes are baked each year in France and the UN agency inscribed the tradition in its “intangible cultural heritage” list.

Reader question: How many baguettes does the average French person eat per day?

France voted on 2021 on whether to apply for the status for the baguette, for the distinctive grey zinc roofs of Paris or for the tradition of wine festivals – and baguettes were selected.

Now UNESCO has announced the latest addition to its intangible cultural heritage list, granting the status to the savoir-faire (known-how) behind the creation of the French bread and the culinary tradition that surrounds it.

Baguettetiquette: Weird things the French do with bread

A true baguette – known as un tradition – has just four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt and is baked in a steam oven to give it the distinctive crispy crust and soft interior.

MAPS How many Parisians live more than five minutes from a boulangerie?

The UN agency granted “intangible cultural heritage status” to the tradition of making the baguette and the lifestyle that surrounds them.

More than six billion are baked every year in France, according to the National Federation of French Bakeries — but the UNESCO status comes at a challenging time for the industry.

France has been losing some 400 artisanal bakeries per year since 1970, from 55,000 (one per 790 residents) to 35,000 today (one per 2,000).

The decline is due to the spread of industrial bakeries and out-of-town supermarkets in rural areas, while urbanites increasingly opt for sourdough, and swap their ham baguettes for burgers.

Still, it remains an entirely common sight to see people with a couple of sticks under their arm, ritually chewing off the warm end (the crouton) as they leave the boulangerie.

There are national competitions, during which the candidates are sliced down the middle to allow judges to evaluate the regularity of their honeycomb texture as well as the the colour of the interior, which should be cream.

But despite being a seemingly immortal fixture in French life, the baguette only officially got its name in 1920, when a new law specified its minimum weight (80 grams) and maximum length (40 centimetres).

“Initially, the baguette was considered a luxury product. The working classes ate rustic breads that kept better,” said Loic Bienassis, of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, who helped prepare the UNESCO dossier.

“Then consumption became widespread, and the countryside was won over by baguettes in the 1960s and 70s,” he said.

Its earlier history is rather uncertain.

Some say long loaves were already common in the 18th century; others that it took the introduction of steam ovens by Austrian baker August Zang in the 1830s for its modern incarnation to take shape.

One popular tale is that Napoleon ordered bread to be made in thin sticks that could be more easily carried by soldiers.

Another links baguettes to the construction of the Paris metro in the late 19th century, and the idea that baguettes were easier to tear up and share, avoiding arguments between the workers and the need for knives

“It is a recognition for the community of artisanal bakers and patisserie chefs,” said Dominique Anract, president of bakeries federation in a statement.

“The baguette is flour, water, salt and yeast — and the savoir-faire of the artisan.”