What to eat and what to watch out for.

when out exploring our many parks and preservations, how often do you think about which plants are edible and which could be bad for your health? There’s a variety of plants, berries, and mushrooms that grow naturally around us, and while we may no longer need to forage for food, it can be quite beneficial to learn which Missouri native plants you can eat and which plants to stay away from.

As we highlight a few plants that are commonly found throughout Missouri, it’s important that you become very familiar with what you’re foraging. Fortunately, these days we have several ways of identifying and becoming familiar with native plants. Many books such as “Foraging the Ozarks,” by Bo Brown, online forums like Master Naturalists and Lincoln University webinars, and websites such as Grow Native and Native Plants and More are great places to start. And don’t be afraid to incorporate native plants in your own yard by visiting the Missouri Wildflower Nursery. Native plants help conservation and bring pollinators to your other plants! 

a. American Elderberry vs. Water Hemlock

Parts of the elderberry plant can be poisonous, but its flowers and ripe berries are perfectly edible and can be made into jams, jellies, syrups, pie fillings, and wines. Not only can elderberry be delicious, they contain vitamin C, antioxidants, and have very high immune boosting properties, which is why Missouri is encouraging landowners to grow them for production. However, it is extremely important to not confuse elderberry for wild hemlock, as it is one of the most deadly plants in North America. Thankfully, there are a few key differences that will have you on the right track for identification. For starters, you’ll want to look at the leaves. Elderberry leaves branch off exactly opposite of each other while hemlock leaves branch off in alternating patterns, and the leaves themselves are much more triangular and lacy than elderberry. Next, the plant’s stems can be a dead giveaway to what you’re working with. Elderberry is actually a shrubby bush that can potentially grow as big as a small tree and has brown bark (with raised bumps, not thorns) on its stem while water hemlock is shorter, herbaceous, and has a hollow main stem that produces flower clusters that are more spread out than elderberry. Finally, elderberry flowers will make clusters of black elderberry fruits that drupe and ripen in late summer while water hemlock will make little green seeds, not to be confused with unripe berries.

b. Morel Mushrooms vs. False Morel

While morel mushrooms have varieties like the yellow morel, black morel, and half-free morel, it’s false morels you’ll want to stay clear from. Many Missourians have enjoyed these tasty mushrooms that seem to have a very distinctive look to them, but when new to foraging or in a rush, it’s not uncommon to pick up a false morel. When taking a close look at the mushroom caps, false morels have wrinkled, irregular caps that can be described as brainlike or saddle-shaped. In morel mushrooms, the pits and ridges can be very distinct except when finding a half-free morel where the cap is not fully developed. In contrast, the cap surface of false morels has lobes, folds, flaps, or wrinkles. For a better look, slice the morels in half. In false morels, the cap and stalk are chambered while the true morels are completely hollow. Also, in Missouri, there is a season for morels. True morels can only be found in spring, and false morels sprout multiple times throughout the year. 

c. Wild Onion vs. False Garlic

Here in Missouri, wild garlic and onion can naturally grow in most places, including your own yard. But mistaking false garlic (also known as death camas or crows poison) for wild onion can be costly — especially because the two plants can look so similar. Taking a close look at false garlic leaves, they are more dry and grasslike compared to tender or succulent leaves of wild onion. False garlic leaves also have a v-shaped structure with a long central bend in the blade, while wild onion leaves have a more curved, u-shaped leaf. But for times when observation isn’t enough to be certain, you’ll really need to put your nose to the test as wild onion will always have a oniony smell and taste, whether it be mild or strong. 

Disclaimer: Jefferson City Magazine LLC stresses that you do not eat any wild edible plants, herbs, or mushrooms until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you. No liability exists against Jefferson City Magazine LLC; nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in this magazine or through using any of the plants mentioned by Jefferson City Magazine LLC.