Berries are some of the most varied and abundant naturally-growing foods, as trees and bushes bearing berry fruits are common across the United States. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are the berries humans chose to farm and cultivate, so these are the fruits you’re most likely to see in the grocery store. However, step out into the wild and it’s a whole other world of foraging for delicious treats.
Many different climates and environments can support wild berries, meaning these nutrient-dense fruits grow all over. They can range in flavor from sweet to tart, fragrant to flavorless, and can be cooked, baked, or eaten raw. However, not every berry is edible, and many can be incredibly harmful to humans. Certain species of wild berry contain toxic compounds which when eaten can cause painful and uncomfortable symptoms. Some wild berries can even be fatal, so being careful what you eat is an understatement.
Just like purifying water, learning to forage is a fantastic survival skill, as well as a great way to sustainably source 100% natural foods. There are plenty of weird and wonderful edible plants out there, but there are also many which are dangerous to eat. Your task is to successfully differentiate the two so that it’s easy to spot a toxic berry amongst safe fruit. Many of the most common edible berries you can find growing in the wild have family members who aren’t as friendly. While they may look the same, the effects of a toxic and non-toxic berry are very different.
In this article, we’re going to tell you about 10 of the most dangerous wild plants that look just like edible foods. Poisonous berries that look like blueberries and other safe fruits are everywhere, so you need to know the warning signs. Read on to find out how to identify each of these common plants, and what characteristics to look out for to tell you if a berry is safe to eat.
Holly berries are a festive and seasonal sight, always bringing warm feelings and memories of the holidays. Unfortunately, holly can only be enjoyed visually, as the fruits of this plant are highly toxic to humans. Holly is a genus or family of plants containing more than 400 different species. You might find a holly tree or shrub, and this plant can be either evergreen or deciduous. Holly grows all over the world, but in the US the most common variety is American Holly.
You can identify the American Holly, or Ilex Opaca, by its dark green non-glossy spine-tipped leaves. As well as the singular leaf shape, holly is recognizable by the bright red round berries which grow in clusters on female plants. The strong red berries and dark pointed leaves make an attractive Christmas decoration, but they shouldn’t be made a part of your meal. While holly berries are a common food for birds and other wildlife, they should never be eaten by humans.
The digestive systems of smaller animals work very differently from that of humans. When you see birds munching away on holly berries you might think this makes them a safe snack for human consumption. Unfortunately, tiny little birds can tolerate poisons which would kill a human, so this isn’t a safe guide to see what’s edible. Holly berries contain saponin, a toxin that can cause nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps.
These poisonous red berries also have high levels of theobromine. This alkaloid is related to caffeine and found in chocolate, but the amounts in holly berries can be dangerous. Don’t worry if you eat one or two holly berries by accident, as these shouldn’t cause too much trouble. However, a handful containing around 20 berries could be enough to be fatal when eaten. It’s possible to confuse these poisonous wild berries with a similar red berry, like the cranberry when it’s off the tree. However, you should notice the pointed holly leaves when foraging and avoid these poisonous red berries.
2. Yew Berries
All types of yew trees, or trees from the genus Taxus, produce a red berry around their seed. While the flesh of the fruit is actually safe for consumption, yew seeds are incredibly toxic to humans. When teaching children about foraging and what is and isn’t safe to eat, it’s best to teach complete avoidance of yew trees. While the yew berries are technically safe to eat, it’s not worth the risk of accidentally consuming a poisonous seed. Unripe yew berries are also poisonous.
Yew berries aren’t actually true berries, the fleshy edible part of this plant is called an Aril. Arils are false fruits, as the flesh of yew is actually the conifer’s cone scale which has evolved to taste attractive to birds. That means the fleshy part of a yew seed is the same as pine cone scales; it’s not a fruit or berry at all! You can eat the flesh of a yew seed in emergencies, but be very careful of this natural snack.
Yew seeds, as well as every other part of the yew tree other than the berry, contain very poisonous plant alkaloids called taxanes. If you eat too many, these toxins can cause seizures and have even been known to cause instant death. For this reason, we recommend avoiding yew berries altogether, as the sweet red fruit just isn’t worth the risk. Should you accidentally eat a yew seed when consuming the red flesh, try to induce vomiting immediately.
At this point it might seem like festive plants are out to get you, because mistletoe is another highly poisonous berry. This popular Christmas decoration grows clusters of white or pink berries, which can look very attractive to the hungry and untrained eye. However, these poisonous wild berries should be used as decoration only, as the entire plant is dangerous when consumed. Every part of mistletoe from berry to stem contains a protein called phoratoxin, a substance that when consumed can be very dangerous to humans.
Phoratoxin is a cardiac depressant, meaning it can cause a slowed down heartbeat (bradycardia). Stomach problems including cramps and diarrhea are also potential effects, as well as convulsions and blurred vision. One or two mistletoe berries shouldn’t contain enough toxins to harm you, as the poison is much more highly concentrated in the leaves of this plant. However, mistletoe is definitely to be avoided when foraging, and these wild berries are definitely not an acceptable form of nutrition. Read about safe foraging in the best survival books; it may save your life!
Pokeweed produces some of the most enticing berries you might come across in the forest; these plump juicy fruits look an awful lot like blueberries and could easily fool a novice forager. Pokeweed plants are shrubs that grow all over and produce tantalizing strings of dark purple pokeberries. Sadly, these berries which look like grapes are nowhere near as tasty, and they’re actually highly dangerous to humans.
There are several toxins that have been identified in pokeberries including saponin which we already told you about. The most dangerous substance in these berries are lectins, which are present in many of the world’s most deadly plants. Just a small handful of pokeweed berries could be fatal to a child, and the more mature a berry, the more toxins it tends to contain. The roots, stem, and leaves of the pokeweed plant all contain dangerous poisons, but the berries are most dangerous because they look like fruit. You can tell the difference between pokeberries and safe-to-eat grapes by noticing the bright red stem, which on grapevines is a pale green.
5. Virginia Creeper
The Virginia Creeper is a climbing vine plant common across the United States. Virginia creeper is often mixed up with poison ivy, as the two plants do look similar. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the Virginia creeper has leaflets of 5, whereas poison ivy has three. Some people will experience an allergic reaction similar to poison ivy when touching any part of the Virginia creeper plant, due to the presence of oxalate crystals.
Oxalic acid can irritate any part of your skin, and this toxin is found in all parts of the Virginia creeper. If consumed, oxalate crystals can cause irritation of the lips, mouth, and tongue, but the damage doesn’t stop here. The poisonous berries of the Virginia creeper resemble grapes, but should bever be eaten. Oxalic acid has a toxic effect on the kidneys, which can lead to violent illness, vomiting, and even death. While you don’t need to be as worried about touching the Virginia creeper as you do with notorious poison ivy, neither of these plants should ever go near your mouth.
Deadly nightshade, or solanum, is the most infamous poisonous plant in the world. It’s one of the most dangerous growing in the eastern hemisphere, with toxic alkaloids found in every part of the plant. Nightshade grows mainly on chalky soil and is a common plant to find out in the wild. You can identify deadly nightshade by the oval pointed leaves, which are strongly ribbed and pale green in color, and small white flowers.
Nightshade berries are green when they first appear, while ripe berries are a deep shiny black. These poisonous berries look a bit like cherries and can be very tempting to young children. However, just two berries are enough to be fatal to a child, while it would take around 10 to kill an adult. The toxic effects of consuming nightshade berries also include delirium, hallucinations, and convulsions. If you accidentally eat one, a large glass of warm vinegar or a mixture of mustard and water may be able to neutralize the toxicity.
7. Jerusalem Cheery
The fruit of a Jerusalem cherry very closely resembles that of wild tomato plants, but these are two fruits you don’t want to confuse. This wild berry plant is actually native to South America, contrary to what the name suggests. Jerusalem cherries are small shrubs that produce berries that look like cherry tomatoes. However, these bittersweet berries are a member of the nightshade family and are just as poisonous to humans.
Also known as the Christmas orange, Jerusalem cherry plants produce yellow-orange berries containing a compound called solanine. This toxin can cause abdominal pain, gastrointestinal infections, and an irregular heartbeat (tachycardia). The most common result of eating Jerusalem cherries is vomiting, and these poisonous red berries can also be fatal to pets.
8. Ivy Berries
Poison ivy is a well-known plant, and most people know to avoid touching it or risk an itchy and painful rash. This is because it contains a substance called urushiol, the same chemical is found in poison oak and sumac. Urushiol is a clear liquid compound found in every part of an ivy plant and causes an allergic reaction in most people. However, it isn’t poison ivy we’re warning against today.
In fact, every species of ivy plant fruits in the form of berries, and these are easy to mistake for a tasty trail snack. You should never eat the fruit from an ivy, which you can recognize by the three compound leaves. The small purple berries are highly bitter, so most people won’t be tempted to eat more than one. However, ingesting larger quantities can cause breathing difficulties, fever, and even a coma.
Elderberry, or Sambucus, is actually a common wild berry to eat. There are numerous species in the Sambucus family, one of which is considered non-toxic. However, the vast majority of elderberry bushes you may find growing in the wild are likely poisonous. The fruit of the elderberry can be black, blue, or red, appearing in clusters of small balls. Like many fruits, elderberries contain glycosides in their seeds, a substance that turns into cyanide and is toxic to humans.
Peaches and apples have cyanide in their seeds too, but when these parts aren’t consumed when you’re enjoying the fruit. On the other hand, elderberry seeds are contained within the fruit, so eating elderberries can expose you to dangerous levels of cyanide. Luckily, elderberries can be cooked into preserves, jams, or pies, and doing so makes them safe to eat. You should never snack on elderberries while out on a hike, but you can collect them to cook safely and enjoy later.
Chokecherry shrubs often grow along wood edges or roadsides, they need full sunlight to thrive. You won’t come across this berry bush deep in the forest, but they’re still a common sight along many hiking trails. The bright red berries can be very attractive to hungry eyes, but chokecherries aren’t an ideal trail snack. Like the elderberry, chokecherries contain seeds with a high concentration of cyanide, a dangerous compound if consumed by humans.
You can still eat the flesh of chokecherries, but the stone within is toxic. One easy way to prepare these berries is to boil them until they split, and then straining out the seeds from the fruits. After this, the berry is safe to eat, but otherwise, you should never ingest any part of a chokecherry plant. These bittersweet berries are best left to the wildlife.
We’ve covered 10 of the most dangerous plants that look like food in North America, but there are hundreds of wild berry varieties. Even the most experienced forager can’t identify every single one, so we’re going to share a few tips on avoiding dangerous fruits. If you follow smart practices when foraging, and don’t leave anything up to chance, then the forest can be a neverending delight! Here are a few pieces of advice you can use when foraging for wild berries:
- Avoid white, yellow, and green berries: Nine times out of ten, a berry in one of these colors isn’t safe to eat. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course, white grapes are an obvious example, but pale-colored berries are best avoided on the trail.
- Look for poisonous warning signs: Milky sap (or strange colored sap), spines or pointy hairs, and pink, purple, or black spurs are all signs that a plant is poisonous. These are similar to the warning signs for dangerous spiders; nature has ways of telling us what to stay away from. Never eat a berry from one of these plants. Another warning sign is a three-leaf growth pattern as we see in poison ivy.
- Don’t ignore a bad taste: If you find a berry which tastes bitter or soapy, you probably won’t want to eat it anyway. It’s important to know however that these are a sign of toxic fruit.
- Do a skin test: Smash berries against your forearm or lips and wait to see if the juice causes irritation. You can also chew a berry without swallowing to check for a reaction in your mouth.
- Be cautious in emergencies: If you absolutely have to eat a questionable wild berry, eat a very small amount, to begin with. Wait at least 20 minutes to see how your body reacts before continuing to eat.
- Don’t follow animals: Birds, insects, and other mammals have very different digestive systems to humans. An animal may eat a poisoned berry and be completely safe, but if a human follows suit the results can be fatal.
- Don’t take the risk: If you can’t identify a berry, the best advice is to leave it well alone. Survival situations can force you to act otherwise, but most people don’t need to eat the berries from random trees.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to find out some plants that are safe to eat on the trail!