Lots of plants look similar when they are young. Being able to tell them apart is crucial if you intend to forage for wild foods. I want to take a look at foxgloves, primroses, burdock and dock. The later 3 are all edible*, whilst foxgloves are highly toxic and can be deadly. At this time of year, all 4 of these plants can look similar.
When we’re running a foraging course I talk about ‘getting your eye in’; after a while you notice that not everything is just green, but in fact that there are many different shades of green as well as different textures and sheens, some are hairy and others not. (It’s also important to touch and smell plants as well, but that’s difficult with a blog post!)
These photos were taken at the weekend and from left to right are: burdock, foxglove, primrose and dock.
Most people can recognise a dock leaf from childhood when they used it to rub on a nettle sting and burdock leaves tend to be relatively wide and are hairy. All of the leaves above are a slightly different colour and texture. For me the dock leaf is glossy, primrose a little less so whilst burdock and foxglove have a matt finish. The foxglove leaf is also a little more pointed.
Where the differences are really apparent is on the back of the leaves. They are in the same order as previously, so burdock, foxglove, primrose and dock. Now the colour differences jump out. But the easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the veins on the leaves. Whilst the veins on the burdock, primrose and dock go to the edge of the leaf, the veins on foxgloves turn upwards and run almost parallel with the main stem.
Make sure that you doublecheck in your plant identification book and if you aren’t confident with identifying your plants, don’t take the chance, don’t eat them!
*Edible doesn’t mean tasty! Burdock leaves have a very bitter taste that tends to linger; the stems are ok and we’ve eaten them steamed and served with a cheese sauce. Dock leaves are better known for their medicinal uses and need to be boiled twice before they are edible. I’m not that keen on primrose leaves either, but I don’t mind the flowers in an infusion or salad.