A day out in the wild would not feel as adventurous without foraging some delicious wild foods—berries, mushrooms, nuts, herbs, or even the seasonal ramp. Although many are safe to eat, they also have dangerous doppelgangers. You could end up eating some pretty poisonous plants.
One of these often-confused plants is wild garlic. Wild garlic itself is safe, but if you happen to mistake it for its lookalike, death camas, your foraging adventure could end up with a trip to the hospital.
Wild garlic and death camas belong to a family of plants called Amaryllidaceae, which grow from bulbs. In the same family is the genus Allium. Some of the plants in the Allium genus are onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, onion grass, and garlic. These are edible, but some inedible kinds are close in appearance, such as the Death camas.
Just as its name suggests, consuming this plant could mean death. Death camas is a toxic perennial weed that grows across the United States. You’re likely to find Death Camas in a forest clearing or beside a stream. It extends from a bulb and resembles an onion, only that its outer layer is darker.
Both its leaves and bulb are poisonous because they contain a toxin called Zygacine. If you ate just a bit of it, you would have an upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting. In large amounts, it could cause paralysis of different degrees, and in some cases, death.
Unfortunately, there is no antidote for Zygacine poisoning.
Wild garlic or field garlic is precisely what its name suggests, garlic that grows in the wild. It appears as little weed tuffs, and its bulbs stay in the ground. You can recognize it by its garlicky smell. While domestic garlic is known for its large bulbs, the wild kind has smaller bulbs and tall chive-like leaves.
Wild garlic is perennial, and it emerges in the fall. You’re likely to miss it until it shoots in the spring, however. If not harvested, the leaves dry up, and the bulb stays in the ground. The leaves return the following fall and the cycle repeats year after year.
Wild Garlic vs. Death Camas
Wild garlic looks more like an onion than regular domesticated garlic. It has round and hollow leaves that grow along the stem. The leaves resemble chives but produce a distinctive garlicky scent that you can smell from a distance.
Death camas leaves also look like onion leaves, but grow in a V-shape. You’re also likely to see yellow flowers shooting from its top and others along the sides of its stem.
When dug up, the death camas has a large bulb similar to an onion but without the brown covering. Also, its scent is not nearly like that of onion or garlic. So, if it doesn’t look or smell like garlic or onion, don’t use it as such.
The wild garlic bulb is smaller than domesticated garlic, but you could confuse it for a regular onion. So, be careful in your evaluation. Look for the brown layer around the bulb to make sure that you are not picking Death Camas.
In closing, yes, you can eat wild foods, but you must correctly identify the good from the poisonous. If you even have one bit of hesitancy, do yourself a favor and don’t partake of that flavor. It won’t be worth the risk.