9 Poisonous Plants People Love to Eat
Some of the most delectable plants we eat could actually kill us — unless, of course, you know how to prepare them.
An apple a day might keep the doctor away ... unless you end up chewing a lot of apple seeds, which might give you a mild case of cyanide poisoning. Yes, some of the most delicious fruits, nuts, seeds, fungi and tubers in our pantries — things we eat all the time — can do us in if we’re not careful.
Here are answers to some of your most common questions about the poisonous plants we love to eat.
Q: I heard green potatoes will make you sick. Is that true?
A: True! Potatoes produce a natural pesticide called solanine, which exists at toxic levels in green potatoes. The green is caused by the production of chlorophyll, which coincides with a potato's increased concentration of solanine. Of course, it takes quite a bit to make you sick — about 16 ounces of fully green potato, for a 100-pound person.
Regular potatoes, mind you, are fine.
Q: Wait, how can elderberries be poisonous if I can buy elderberry syrup at Whole Foods?
A: Confusing, right? Elderberries (a.k.a. Sambucus) are a common folk remedy — but beware. According to the CDC, the fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, and particularly the roots contain a bitter alkaloid and glucoside that can produce hydrocyanic acid — which leads to cyanide poisoning. In particular, elderberry tea (if made with the elderberry leaves and branches) should be treated cautiously: it’s the most frequent cause of sickness and, rarely, death.
Ripe elderberries lose their poisonous properties when cooked. And then they’re delicious.
Q: What’s the deal with bitter almonds?
A: Unrefined bitter almonds have been banned from unrestricted use in the U.S. since 1995. Why? Because they can cause cyanide poisoning if left unprocessed. And just a few handfuls of nuts will do it: A 150-pound adult could die from eating anywhere from 10 to 70 raw nuts. A child? Just a few.
But chefs and foodies aren’t deterred. Bitter almonds have an intense, unique flavor, used in marzipan and other desserts across Europe, where it’s more common.
Sweet almonds? They’re yours for the taking.
Q: Why can I eat strawberry rhubarb pie without getting sick?
A: Because it’s delicious. And because rhubarb pie contains those pretty red stalks (which are fine) and not the leaves. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and if ingested, can easily lead to stomach pain and nausea — and presumably death, if you eat enough.
Looking for more ways to eat those delicious stalks? Check out 12 Amazing Rhubarb Dessert Recipes to Make Your Summer Sweet (and Tart).
Q: Um … can nutmeg make you sick?
A: Only if you really try. Nutmeg contains myristicin, a toxic and mind-altering compound if ingested in large doses. While nutmeg does have hallucinogenic qualities, its intensely nasty and prolonged side effects are a pretty strong deterrent. If you consume two tablespoons of nutmeg or more, get ready for severe gastrointestinal reactions and heart palpitations, and even death.
That said, a shake or two on your egg nog won’t hurt you.
Q: I heard cassava can kill you — but people eat it all the time. What’s that about?
A: Cassava (a.k.a. manioc, tapioca, or yuca) is a common food staple in South America and parts of Africa, and is used in other dishes and baking all over the world. Like other edible plants on this list, if not prepared properly it can cause cyanide poisoning — especially bitter cassava, which is high in cyanogenic glycosides. (Hence the bitterness.)
For most of the cassava you find in the market, though, simply peel the root prior to cooking and cook it thoroughly. The leaves are also poisonous, but again, are edible if you cook them.
Q: I heard undercooked kidney beans are a big no-no.
A: You heard right, and you’ll never guess why: They contain phytohaemagglutinin (a.k.a. PHA, or kidney bean lectin). Even just a few undercooked beans will give you some serious gastrointestinal distress. It’s not fatal, though.
If you cook your beans properly, there’s no reason to fear. In fact, well-seasoned kidney beans are practically a reason to celebrate.
Q: Why aren’t you supposed to eat cashews raw?
A: Have you ever seen a raw cashew? They aren’t really even nuts, man. It’s mind-blowing!
The cashews we eat grow on the bottoms of the cashew apple, and their shells have an oil full of anacardic acid. That’s the same stuff that makes poison ivy and poison sumac, well… poisonous — or at the very least, really irritating.
That’s why typically you only see roasted cashews on the shelves. There’s no shell, and the roasting process destroys any remnants of anacardic acid there might be. So enjoy! (Millions of vegans can’t be wrong.)
Q: How do you know if the mushrooms you’re about to eat are poisonous?
A: If you’re not foraging for your own, you’re fine. If you are foraging, go with someone experienced. There are wild mushrooms that are truly deadly — and, conveniently, they have names like “Death Cap” and “Funeral Bell.” Some look an awful lot like their delicious cousins, so only eat a mushroom you’re 100% sure about.
Those mushrooms in the grocery aisle? They’re perfectly safe (and delicious when sauteed in butter). For more about all the varieties you'll find in-store (and a slew of additional recipes), read 12 Mushrooms and How To Eat Them.
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