How Many Poisonous Herbs Are There?

valentinetbear(z6 PA)June 19, 2007

Apparently, its not extremely poisonous, or we'd be dead, but just found out last night that Russian Sage is neither Russian nor a Sage, BUT it IS poisonous. Oh boy!

Makes me wonder -- what other kinds of herbs aren't really herbs, and, more importantly, are poisonous? Considering how hard it is to pinpoint exactly what an herb is, if you're not sure if it's an herb or not, I'd appreciate you listing it anyway. I love growing a fairly diverse selection of herbs (apparently no sage, even though I thought that was my largest herb, yeesh), so all info is much appreciated.

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Well, you can be sure that anything with the latin name of --- officinalis, for example salvia officinalis, is edible. Like Rosemary officinalis or Thymus officinalis. I don't think that many salvia's are edible, real or not. So, I'd stick to the salvia officinalis family.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2007 at 7:52PM
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valentinetbear(z6 PA)

Officinalis! Gotcha! Thanks! (No more looking for "salvia" for my sages. LOL)

    Bookmark   June 20, 2007 at 9:20AM
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There are many thousands of poisonous herbs. 'Officinalis' actually means 'medicinal', but it often is used to indicate that the plant is edible. When in doubt, check FIRST before eating it! You might also see 'officinale' in the botanical name - it has the same meaning as 'officinalis'.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2007 at 8:33PM
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valentinetbear(z6 PA)

>>When in doubt, check FIRST before eating it!Well, yeah?! Just never considered something called "sage" as not being sage, i.e. edible!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2007 at 12:41PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

valentinebear, common names can be quite confusing to many people, that's for sure. You are mistaken if you consider the ornamental perennial commonly called Russian Sage as an herb. It's not. Experienced gardeners understand that, but it's easy to see how others would be confused!

I 'believe' that you are using the term 'herb' in the culinary sense, right? [There is at least one other use for that term, but most people in the states use the word strictly for those plants that are used in the kitchen.]

So, in reality, the earlier advice is well worth taking. Before ingesting any part of a plant that you are not one hundred percent certain of, do some research first. Don't go by misleading common names.

Don't go eating any May Apples. ;-)

    Bookmark   June 23, 2007 at 2:01PM
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There are hundreds of types of salvia (sage). It is basically a native wildflower. I have plants which are white sage, scarlet sage, blue sage, purple sage, Russian sage (bees love Russian sage flowers). The colors refer to the color of the flower which the plant produces. Hummingbirds love to feed on sage flowers. Many desert creatures feed on young sage leaves, such as box turtles and rabbits.

The plants are long-lived, and generally flower twice per year. I live in New Mexico. Sage has been a wonderful boon to my xeriscape gardening effort. I do grow a few cooking herbs, but I don't have any edible sage. I'm not crazy about the flavor of sage.

As for poisonous herbs, there are many. Depending upon a person's health, an herb might be poisonous to one person, but not for another person. Lavender and rosemary, for instance, should be avoided by epiletics. Pregnant women should avoid black cohosh and pennyroyal. There are many good herbal web sites. Wickipedia has good herbal information. There are many excellent books on use of herbs, both for medicinal and culinary usage.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2007 at 2:09PM
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Actually, I know of only 4 sages (Salvia) which are edible, out of hundreds. Common sage (Salvia offininalis), Pineapple Sage (S. elegans), and Fruit Salad Sage (S. dorisiana), Clary Sage (S. sclarea). There are probably others, but with these exceptions, you can assume that most sages are NOT edible.

Think about the Solonocae family, which has many poisonous plants in it. This includes plants like tomatoes (the only part of the plant which isn't poisonous is the fruit) and potatoes (the only part of the plant which isn't poisonous is the tubor). Then think of Deadly Nightshade and Jimson Weed - very close relatives.

You really have to be careful. As I've just shown, it is important to know WHICH PARTS of a plant to use, and also when to harvest. Elderberries are safe to eat (cooked) when ripe, but toxic when unripe. The seeds of apples and apricots (and other stone fruits) are poisonous. Some plants are poisonous to eat unless they are prepared in a particular way (Nardoo is one example).

Poke Weed is generally regarded as a poisonous plant, but many people eat parts of it as Poke Salat.

Poke Weed: Do not eat this plant raw or inadequately cooked. Poke root should be boiled before eating and the water drained off and discarded. Boil it again in fresh water and drain off the water again. It may then be eaten. Poke is a powerful purgative and emetic. Do not exceed the dosages recommended. The seeds, which are present in the berries, are poisonous and should not be eaten. Do not use during pregnancy. It causes foetal abnormalities. All parts of the fresh plant are toxic, as are the dried berries. Do not eat any part of the plant which is tinged with red. Can cause vomiting and severe diarrhoea. It can cause foetal abnormalities if used during pregnancy. Pregnant women should not handle the plant at all. Do not use when breastfeeding. Large doses can be fatal and small doses, or eating the berries, can be fatal to children. Can cause severe skin irritation in some people. Do not use if taking anti-depressants, oral contraceptives or fertility drugs. May cause menstrual cycle irregularities.

Here are some lists of poisonous herbs. None of the lists is comprehensive.

buttercup Ranunculis acris
broom  Sarothamnus scoparius
cowbane  Cicuta virosa
deadly nightshade  Atropa belladonna
false mustard  Brassica napus
foxglove  Digitalis purpurea
greater celandine  Chelidonium majus
hemlock  Conium maculatum
holly  Ilex aquifolium
horsetail  Equisetum arvense
ivy  Hedera helix
laburnum  Laburnum anagyroides
larkspur  Delphinium ajacis
lily of the valley  Convallaria majalis
lupin  Lupinus (various sp.)
marsh marigold  Caltha palustris
mistletoe  Viscum album
monkshood (Aconite) Â Aconitum napellus
stinking hellebore  Helleborus foetida
tobacco  Nicotiana rustica
traveler's joy  Clematis vitalba
white bryony  Bryonia dioica
wood sorrel  Oxalis acetosella
yew  Taxus baccata

There are 20000 known herbs on the planet, and a large proportion of these is poisonous. Think Curare, Mandrake!

Check out this list, too.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2007 at 5:26PM
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CA Kate

Daisy! thank you for the advice about Poke Weed. I didn't know the berries were poisonous. I have grandchildren that just might decide to take a taste off one of the several plants that have "volunteered" to live in my gardens. I just thought they were an interesting plant..... like Datura (Jimson Weed), which is also poisonous.

    Bookmark   July 19, 2007 at 5:53PM
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I am confused. If they are poisoneous, why are they classified as an "herb"

Thanks for the info

    Bookmark   July 30, 2007 at 11:57AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

This topic has been turned into a conversation that can be confusing. ;-) I believe that if you think in terms of CULINARY herbs, you'll understand. None of the plants included in the above list are not considered culinary herbs at all. Most people think of culinary herbs when using the term 'herb'.

If you go back to the original post, you'll see that she was confused about a plant called Russian Sage, assuming that because it was called 'sage' that it was a culinary herb. It's always a good idea to avoid jumping to conclusions about the edibility of any plant based on a common name.

Since there are so many plants out there with toxic properties, it's essential that you are certain of the identity of a plant before adding it to your soup.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2007 at 3:23PM
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There are culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, insecticidal herbs, cosmetic herbs, herbs which are used to thatch houses or make musical instruments, poisonous herbs, perfume herbs, dye herbs, herbs for making cloth or paper..... If it has a use for mankind, it's a herb.

'Herbs' are not just for eating and flavouring foods, though I agree that this is how many people think of 'herbs' at first.

Some herbs are multi-purpose, depending on which part(s) of the plant are used, and how.

Some herbs are only edible at certain stages of their growth-cycle, and poisonous at other times. Other herbs are poisonous unless carefully prepared in certain ways for eating. Some herbs are very poisonous but can be used by experts for medicinal purposes, in tiny quantities. And so it goes.

With herbs, one really needs to do some homework and to make no assumptions. It also helps to widen one's mental horizons!

    Bookmark   July 30, 2007 at 6:06PM
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valentinetbear(z6 PA)

Despite my stupidity on assuming all sage is edible, I've been reading up on herbs for a while now. All herbs are plants, but not all plants are herbs. (Yeah, you probably knew that, but wanted to start at the beginning. LOL)

I've read four books, and two magazines on herbs in the last year, and none of them have the same list for what they consider "herb," so, apparently the line is foggy. The definition seemes to be "plants with more then one purpose."

The ones I was asking about were the culinary ones! Some of the others that I know about (and knew were poisonous) serve other purposes:

Tansy was and can still be used to keep ants and other insects from even wanting to come into your home, if planted near the steps. It was also dropped on colonial floors and windows, because of it's pine smell, to freshen up the closed up winter home, before deodorant was invented.

Indigo was used for purple dyes. Matter of fact, many plants under the heading of "herb" were used for dyes -- both for clothing or painting.

Aloe is good for burns, and I'm sure you can start thinking of other purposes folks use plants for, besides spices.

Frankly, I was surprised when someone told me that lily-of-the-valley was poisonous. I didn't know it was considered an herb, and never considered eating it. Now I know not to eat it. LOL

Now, it's hard to answer your question specifically, because some books call roses "herbs," because you can eat the petals and rose hips (not the stemans, pistons, or rest of the plant), while others don't list them at all. Some daylilies are edible, and one kind of marigold (pot marigold) is edible, but the rest aren't.

And then the whole thing gets very blurry, when you realize some plants that are considered poisonous are consumed anyway -- elderberries! (Apparently, only a problem if you drink too much, but what is too much?) I was also surprised to find out my brother served us something poisonous for dinner, years ago -- pokeweed! It was delicious and grows as a weed around here, but reading up on it, I no longer have the guts to try it. The rhubarb stems are edible, but nothing else. It's all very confusing.

Back in the olden days (last year) before I knew some herbs that I assumed were for cooking are poisonous, I also tried lavander on pizza -- yummy! Had it again tonight! (Don't know if it's poisonous or not, but hasn't killed us yet. Then again, we don't eat a lot, and we ate Russian Sage for a couple of years, too. Maybe, I'm not the one who should list the edibles. LOL)

I do suggest reading books about herbs. It's been fun! I've learned how to make dried wreathes for soups or Christmas. I've also learned more uses for herbs besides the Simon and Garfunkel herbs (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. ;) )

Now, if garden centers and nurseries would be kind enough to realize that some of us (me!!!) are simply naive, and actually tell us that the plants called "sage" are poisonous. LOL

    Bookmark   July 31, 2007 at 12:06AM
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Unripe elderberries are poisonous, uncooked ripe elderberries are much less poisonous. Cooked ripe elderberries are safe to eat.

I have read hundreds of herb books (have what amounts to a library of them of my own!), visited hundreds of herb websites, participated in assorted Herb Clubs, blah blah over a period of several decades, and I feel I've only scratched the surface of what there is to know about herbs.

It's very difficult to draw lines, really. Tansy is edible in small quantities - do a search for 'Tansy Pudding'. It is something that doesn't appeal to modern tastes - remember in times of yore, people didn't have access to sugar, so their taste buds were attuned to bitter. We've been spoiled, in these modern days!

It's handy to remember that 'edible' doesn't always mean 'tasty' or 'delicious'!

Also, it's good to remember that there are probably just as many definitions of 'herb' as there are herbs on the planet (around 20000). I find it hard to describe any of the 'culinary' herbs as purely culinary because most of them have medicinal or other uses as well. And of course, what is 'culinary' to me might not be 'culinary' to you, and vice versa. For instance, some people regard dandelion as nothing but a weed, but when I grew and sold herbs commercially, dandelion was one of my best sellers - as a culinary herb!

Lavender flowers are edible (the ones of the English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, are the ones recommended for best flavour - the others are too camphor-y for most tastes). I'm very fond of them and use them a lot in my cooking. Do a search for 'lavender recipes' and be prepared for some culinary surprises and delights.

Lily of the Valley flowers can be used (with caution) to make wine (with raisins), and the roots is used medicinally. But yes, it's generally regarded as poisonous. There are many similar examples. That's what I mean about the difficulty in drawing lines.

The one thing I can say with certainty is this:

Once you've been bitten by the herb bug, you've got 'herbs' in your system forever. You'll never be able to shake it off. You'll hear of a new herb, you'll want to know all about it, and you'll want to grow it and use it and it will never stop at just one! In short, they're sadly addictive. However, it's such a fascinating journey of knowledge that the addiction can (hopefully) be forgiven.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2007 at 2:54AM
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CA Kate

valentinebear: Please explain, "I've learned how to make dried wreathes for soups...." This sounds interesting. Directions would also be nice.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2007 at 1:44PM
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There is an awful lot to know, when using herbs for medicinals. Many folks know that aloe is good for burns. How many folks know that that there is a caustic substance between the pulp of an aloe leaf and the exterior of the leaf? Only the pulp of the aloe leaf should be used.

Some herbs are highly nutritious, such as parsley. A cup of parsley has a huge amount of calcium, and also contains many vitamins. I cured an elderly dog of old age kidney disease by putting a cup of parsley tea on her daily meal.
Parsley is good for kidney function, and cleans toxins from the kidneys. A foul smell from urine excreted after consuming a cup of parsley tea is the result of toxins being released. Drink a cup of parsley tea every day for 3-4 days, and the odor will lessen each day until there is no foul odor, because the toxins have been eliminated.

Slippery elm is a muscle relaxant. I use it to stop muscle spasms which I sometimes get in my bladder, or in my back muscles.

I recently read that some folks use lily of the valley to treat heart disease because it is less poisonous than foxglove. Foxglove is so highly poisonous that it is a regulated plant. Chewing a leaf of foxglove could kill a person. Digitalis (widely used heart medication) is derived from foxglove. If I were going to use a poisonous herb, I would do so under the guidance of a certified herbalist.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2007 at 8:18PM
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A lot of people don't know that the 'harmless' parsley, which really is a good herb, can cause abortions in susceptible women. Usually the root or seeds are used for this purpose, but if a pregnant women eats enough of the leaves, it can happen, too - in which case we're kind, and call it a miscarriage. Parsley can also cause foetal abnormalities. Hoodathortit? But it's true. There are a lot of herbs which pregnant women should avoid - usually in medicinal doses, but if you're concerned, altogether.

This doesn't mean they're poisonous (toxic). It means they have a (sometimes unwanted) medicinal side-effect or more. Some work on the uterine muscles, some work on breast milk supply, some work on the heart, or some other organ of the body in men or women. Certain herbs are contraindicated if you have certain conditions - diabetes, heart disorders, blood pressure problems, that sort of thing. And of course, individual people have allergies which can make a herb dangerous for them to take. These herbs might not be 'poisonous' in the strict sense, but can be considered as poisonous by those adversely affected by them.

It can get complicated, can't it?

Learn about the herbs you use, and remember my motto: moderation, moderation, and moderation. A truckload of common sense really helps, too.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2007 at 2:33AM
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ltcollins1949(9a TX)

There is a lot of great information on this thread!

I strongly suggest learning and using botanical names rather than common names to avoid confusion, along with becoming knowledgeable about herbs. It can possibly save a life.

Here is a good website to check out:

    Bookmark   August 2, 2007 at 10:32AM
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Yeah I am a big fan using parsley tea my self. I just wish it tasted a little better. It's not that its horrible its just that it's a bit bland. How old is your dog?

    Bookmark   October 31, 2010 at 4:35PM
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What first drew me to herbs was the multi-purpose and medicinal aspect. The most valuble quote I have found didn't reference 'herbs' but 'weeds'. A weed is any plant that is growing where you don't want it to. This lead me into learning just how many plants that are herbs that are commonly addressed as weeds including broadleaf plantains and chicory. We would all do better to learn the properties of the plants in our area that come up w/out our help. You might be surprised!

    Bookmark   August 2, 2011 at 4:52PM
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