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Risk of mix-up with bear's garlic

10/2005, 15.04.2005

BfR warns pickers about fatal consequences of mistaking free-growing poisonous plants for bear’s garlic

Bear’s garlic, a flavoursome kitchen herb, has become increasingly popular in recent years. The fresh herb is used for herb flavour quark, soups, sauces and salads. Given its popularity more and more people are taking to the woods in order to pick this savoury leek-like plant themselves. Once the spring days in April starting becoming warmer and sunnier and the plants give off their characteristic aroma, the bear’s garlic season starts for many people. "Although the garlic-like aroma is a typical characteristic of bear’s garlic, pickers repeatedly mistake its poisonous doubles like lily of the valley or meadow saffron for it", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel.  According to BfR, mistakes of this kind regularly lead to poisoning with, in some cases, fatal consequences.

Bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum), also popularly referred to as forest garlic, grows in shady deciduous and mixed woodlands rich in herbs and nutrients, parks and river woods. In early spring two succulent green, lancet-shaped leaves sprout from the small bulbs, which are also used in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the young leaves are similar to those of the poisonous lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) and the highly poisonous meadow saffron (Cholchicum autumnale). The documentation collected over many years in the poison control centres (GIZ) and in the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) shows that mistakes of this kind repeatedly lead to damage to health with, in some cases, very serious consequences. Particularly in the months of April and May there is an increased incidence of cases of poisoning especially in Austria, Switzerland, Croatia but also in Germany.

BfR, therefore, advises against picking the herb if there are any doubts about its identity. In order to distinguish bear’s garlic from its poisonous doubles, it normally suffices to rub a piece of the leaf between one’s fingers. If the typical garlic-like odour is not released, then the herb should be left well alone and the hands immediately washed thoroughly. The aroma test also has its hidden dangers. If the leek aroma still lingers on the hands from a previous test, it may lead to the wrong conclusion. Bear’s garlic pickers should be familiar with all the characteristics of the plant in order to distinguish it from its doubles.

But there is another way of avoiding the danger of poisoning without having to do without bear’s garlic. More and more greengrocers sell bear’s garlic from controlled cultivation. What’s more, people can buy the plant in specialised shops and then grow it on their windowsills or in the garden.

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