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It’s almost a romantic notion among some amateur hikers to forage wild berries as they trek through the North American wilderness. This notion quickly goes awry when they pop in the wrong berries.
Not all wild berries are safe for human consumption. That’s why the assumption ‘if that bird can eat it, so can I’ is a fallacy – a potentially deadline one, too. Wildlife are biologically adapted to their diet. What is safe for them isn’t necessarily safe for humans to eat.
However, not all wild berries are poison to humans. A few wild types can be eaten but a majority of them should be avoided at all costs, as listed below.
A member of the Buttercup family (Ranunculus), baneberry is a highly toxic shrub. There are two varieties – Red Baneberry (Actea rubra) and White Baneberry (Actea pachypoda).
The white variety is native to eastern North America. Its distinctive fruit are also called doll’s eyes because they have one or a few black spots against the stark white flesh of the round berries.
The entire plant is poisonous to humans if consumed in large quantities. However, the most dangerous part of the baneberry is its berries. They contain cardiogenic toxins that can lead to a heart attack and death.
Both the native American Bittersweet and Oriental Bittersweet produce berries that are inedible to human beings. These woody vines produce clusters of orange and yellow fruit.
Their berries contain solanine which causes diarrhea and stomach upset if eaten. They look similar to Jerusalem cherries and cause the same side effects.
The American Bittersweet is also called the Woody Nightshade. However, it is not to be confused with the Deadly Nightshade or Belladonna, which is also toxic to humans.
This invasive shrub is still found in many gardens due to the attractiveness of its flaming red leaves. Burning Bush or Eunonymous alata bears equally bright orange-red berries. The entire plant and its fruit are toxic.
In North America, Chokecherry trees are popular as shade trees because of their wide canopies and interesting shapes. However, they should be kept with caution.
Chokecherry trees produce clusters of attractive red or black berries. The flesh of the Chokecherry fruit is not poisonous but its seed contains glycoside which is similar to cyanide.
This toxic chemical is deadly when consumed in large amounts. Early signs of poisoning include headache, vomiting, dizziness and high blood pressure. Glycoside is toxic to humans as well as animals.
Cotoneasters are evergreen shrubs that have long branches instead of short branches. Most species of cotoneasters, including the Rockspray (Cotoneaster horizontalis), produce berries that are very toxic when eaten in large quantities.
The berries can cause seizures, trouble breathing and weakness. These berries tend to grow in thick clusters covering the entire branch of the plant.
Although not native to North America, this group of flowering shrubs can be found in some North American gardens due to their spring blooms. Examples are Mezerion (Daphne mezereum) and Flax-Leaved Daphne (Daphne gnidium).
These shrubs can grow quite tall from 5 to 6 feet in height. Both species are highly toxic to humans and animals. All parts of Daphnes including their sap and fruit can cause severe pain on the skin, stomach and throat. Ingesting more than 3 berries can be fatal.
There are 12 species of dogwood (Cornus spp.) trees and shrubs. Some are native to North America while some are not. Both of these can be found in forests or transition zones between a field and forest.
Depending on the species of dogwood, the fruit can be white, red, blue-black or brilliant blue. The species which produces shiny red berries in small clusters are plentiful in the eastern United States during fall and early winter. Although safe for birds, they are not safe for human consumption.
The elderberry (Sambucus) is a genus of flowering plants. There are up to 30 species of elderberry, which spreads across temperate to subtropical regions of the world. However, it is more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere.
Most elderberry species are toxic to humans except Sambucus nigra. The poison of elderberry plants is found in their flowers, berries, seeds and branches.
The cyanide-inducing glycosides in the plant causes a cyanide build-up in the body of those who eat its toxic parts. A build-up of cyanide in the body can be fatal. Less severe effects are vomiting or diarrhea.
The berries are small and grow in very large clusters. They can be either red, blue-black or black but rarely yellow or white. Eaten raw, they are highly toxic, especially the seeds. The toxicity may be removed through cooking. Even so, symptoms of toxicity may still be felt.
The American Holly (Ilex opaca) with its iconic spiky leaves and bright red berries are a familiar sight in Christmas decorations, but the berries are anything but friendly for the tummy. They contain saponin, a toxic compound that can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramp, and even death.
Berries from fresh fronds of holly are pretty to look at and can be kept out of the reach of children and pets. However, they dry out quickly indoors and will drop on the floor.
The fruits of Solanum carolinense stay juicy and plump throughout winter although the plant may have dried up and died. They look like little tomatoes which vary from green to yellow in colour.
Although it is technically part of the tomato family, Horse Nettle fruits and most parts of the plant have solanine, a toxic alkaloid. This compound can cause mild problems like abdominal pain or more serious effects such as respiratory and circulatory depression.
There are many species of ivy plants and all of their berries are best avoided. It doesn’t matter whether they are native American varieties or not. Their berries contain oxalates which are toxic.
The colour of their berries can range from yellow to orange to purple or black. If ingested, they can cause pain and swelling in the tongue, lips, face and skin. Other ailments include nausea, stomach cramps and vomiting.
This grassy woodland plant has a distinctive flower. Only a single bloom on each stalk, it is long and tubular with dark stigmata inside, shaded by a large lip that looks like a huge hat. The plant itself is not poisonous but its berries contain some toxins.
The shiny red berries on a stick of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit can be found during the fall. They won’t kill you but they can cause blisters in your mouth. Great care should be taken when handling them. Avoid any contact with your eyes, mouth or nose after touching these berries with your hands.
Jerusalem cherries are also known as winter cherry or Christmas Orange, because they bear fruit in winter and the plant is kept as colourful houseplants during this period. The berries are similar to cute orange cherry tomatoes which make them a tempting treat for children. The colour of berries can range from yellow to red.
They contain solanocapsine which is poisonous to both humans and animals. Though not deadly, the compound in the berries can cause gastric problems and vomiting.
Convallaria majalis is a woodland flowering plant known as Lily-of-the-Valley. It is native to the southern Appalachian Mountains in the United States as well as temperate areas in Asia and Europe.
Lily-of-the-Valley has broad, long, thick and dark green leaves. The plant only grows up to a foot tall. Its flowers look like tiny round bells and they grow in sets of 5 to 15 blooms per stem. These become equally tiny orange-red berries with a few large seeds.
The entire plant, especially its berries, is highly toxic with around 38 different cardiac glycosides. These toxins can cause vomiting, tummy ache, confusion, fatigue, reduced heart rate, heart attack and death.
Also another popular Christmas plant, the berries of American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) are white in colour, making them look like giant snowflakes. Sometimes, the berries are pink in colour. These are as toxic as the rest of the plant if ingested.
There are over 1,500 types of Mistletoe globally. Some are more toxic than others. The European variant (Viscum album) is more poisonous than the American one. It has been known to cause death whereas the American variety can slow heartbeat, cause stomach issues, blurred vision as well as toxicity to the brain, kidney and adrenal gland.
Menispermum is a type of small woody vine in the Cocculus genera native to North America and Asia. It got the name Moonseed from the shape of its seed which looks similar to a crescent moon. This wild vine can be found in moist thickets, woods and along the banks of streams.
Moonseed can be easily mistaken as grape, especially the Canada Moonseed (Menipermum canadense), which has leaves and fruits that look like those of grapevines. Its berries look very much like grapes. The greatest differentiator is the Moonseed’s seeds. Each berry has only one seed within.
Unlike wild grapes, Moonseed is poisonous from root to stem, including its berries. The plant contains an alkaloid called dauricine which can be fatal if enough is eaten. Children have been known to die from eating Moonseed. Less severe poisoning shows up as convulsions.
The scientific name for Nightshade or Deadly Nightshade is Atropa belladonna. Its shortened scientific name is just as famous as its common names. Belladonna means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.
Although the Deadly Nightshade is not native to North America, this perennial herb has become part of the landscape. It belongs to the nightshade family which includes chilli pepper, eggplant, tobacco and tomato. Traditionally, it has been used to make medicine and cosmetics aside from poison.
The shrub can grow quite tall, up to 5 feet in height. The flowers are also bell-shaped like the Lily-in-the-Valley. Its fruits are about the same size as blueberries. They grow in small clumps and are shiny black when ripe.
The Belladonna contains toxic tropane alkaloids. Its berries have the highest concentration of this toxin. A mere 2 to 5 of its little berries can kill an adult if treatment is not sought. The toxin first interrupts the nervous system, causing problems with breathing and irregular heartbeats.
The Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) may be called a weed but it isn’t small like a weed at all. This plant can grow as tall as 10 feet high. It is commonly found at the edges of cultivated land, in open areas and along roadsides.
Although its berries are harmless to wild animals, they are poisonous for humans and livestock. In fact, every part of the Pokeweed is toxic.
During late summer and early fall, Pokeweed will bear very pretty and long purplish-pink stalks covered with clusters of purple-black berries. The toxic compounds in Pokeweed accumulate as the plant matures. Eating just a few berries can prove fatal to humans and livestock.
Native to eastern and central North America, the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a decorative plant found in many gardens. It is also known as the Victoria Creeper, Five-Leaved Ivy, Five-Finger or Woodbine.
The leaves and berries of this vine are toxic to humans. The Virginia Creeper has tiny bluish berries which grow in medium to large clusters on bright red stalks. Its berries contain higher concentrations of oxalate crystals than its leaves.
When ingested in small quantities, this toxin causes irritation in the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea and difficulty swallowing. Higher quantities can have toxic effects on kidneys.
Although the fruits of Wild Cherry trees (of the Prunus species) are not poisonous, the seeds in the berries and wilting leaves of these trees can have a high concentration of cyanide, which is toxic to humans and livestock.
The Yew is a common tree which bears bright red cherries with a single hole at the tip of each berry. Although the flesh of these berries are not toxic, the seeds are. This applies to all types of Yew. Poisonous alkaloids called taxanes are also found in every part of the tree. Eating too many yew seeds can cause seizures and death.
This list is not exhaustive. Many other poisonous berries grow in the wilderness of North America. Some look similar to edible ones. The best way to be safe is by not eating any berries in the wild.