Wild garlic: "doppelgangers" often lead to poisoning

Wild garlic is enjoying increasingly more popularity for seasoning foods such as soups, sauces, and salads. When the wild garlic season starts in spring, many people go foraging for the allium plant in forests. "Although the garlic-like smell is a typical characteristic of wild garlic, poisonous 'doppelgangers' are often mistaken for the wild garlic, such as lily of the valley or autumn crocus," says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). According to BfR's findings, this kind of confusion leads to cases of poisoning every season, some of which are fatal.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as ramson, grows in herb-rich, shady and nutrient-rich deciduous and mixed forests, riparian forests, parks and kitchen gardens. In spring, usually two juicy, green, lanceolate leaves sprout from small bulbs, which are used for cooking. Unfortunately, the emergent leaves resemble those of the poisonous lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) and the highly poisonous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Many years of documentation at the poison centres of German federal states' ("Laender") and the BfR show that poisonings, partially with serious consequences, occur repeatedly due to confusion. Cases of poisoning are becoming more frequent in Germany, and, for example, also Austria, Switzerland, and Croatia most notably in April and May.

To distinguish wild garlic from its poisonous doppelgangers, rubbing a green leaf between the fingers is usually sufficient. If you cannot smell wild garlic’s typically garlic-like scent, it is better to leave the herb and clean your hands thoroughly straight away. But the smelling test has its pitfalls. An inaccurate result can occur if the scent from a previously tested allium plant sticks to the hands. Therefore, wild garlic gatherers must be very familiar with the plant and all its features in order to discern it reliably from its poisonous counterparts. The BfR therefore advises that, if in doubt, it is better not to eat wild garlic that you have gathered yourself.

Wild garlic is now often part of seasonal vegetable ranges in grocery shops and comes from controlled cultures. There is also the option of buying plants or seeds in specialised shops and growing them yourself. In this way, consumers do not have to forego the pleasure and can avoid the risk of poisoning.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. The BfR advises the Federal Government and the federal states (‘Länder’) on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts independent research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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