Whether you’re on a hiking trip for the weekend or you’ve found yourself in a survival situation for one reason or another, one of the most important things that you need to know is which plants and berries you can eat and which ones you should stay away from. Along with that, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to identify which plants are non-edible and why you shouldn’t eat them.
There are a number of non-edible plants that can be found in many regions. Most of these plants are inedible because they are toxic, and a number of them can kill you. So, it’s important to know about these plants when you’re out foraging if you want to survive in the wilderness.
It is a good idea to consider getting a field manual to keep on you at all times when out foraging. Here is the link to the one found on Amazon that I recommend. It even has a bunch of recipes that incorporate wild plants.
It’s always best to be familiar with the particular plants that you should watch out for, so you know how to spot them and why you want to stay away from them. So before you go out into the wilderness to forage for your dinner, here are 11 plants to avoid in the wilderness if you want to survive.
Referred to by Native Americans as the “suicide bush”, rhododendron is a toxic plant that commonly grows in the Appalachian Mountains and along the east coast of North America.
Rhododendron is so poisonous that people have been known to get sick from eating the honey of bees that have been feeding off of this plant. If consumed, Rhododendron can cause adverse side effects such as hallucinations and diarrhea, and eating rhododendron has been known to cause fatalities.
Rhododendron normally has dark green leaves that are spirally arranged and will bloom clusters of white or pink flowers. The leaves of a Rhododendron plant can be easily mistaken for the sweet bay leaf, which is an edible plant.
The difference between these two plants, however, is that bay leaves are the same color on both sides and have a sweet smell to them, while rhododendron leaves are different colors on each side and have no aroma. So the next time you go to add a sweet bay leaf to your survival soup, double-check!
2. Mountain Laurel
Mountain Laurel has often been described as the “cousin” of the Rhododendron, and is as poisonous as its counterpart.
The Mountain Laurel tends to be found in the eastern region of the United States. Its range stretches from Maine to Florida, and all the way to Indiana and Louisiana. Every part of the Mountain Laurel – the stem, leaves, roots, and flowers – is extremely toxic and can cause Similar to Rhododendron, its leaves are dark green and glossy, and it tends to bloom clusters of small white or pink flowers.
If consumed, mountain laurel most commonly causes severe gastrointestinal hemorrhaging that can lead to death, but this plant can also produce nausea, vomiting, paralysis, difficulty breathing, and comas. Mountain Laurel can also be confused with sweet bay leaf, but can similarly be distinguished by its different colored leaves and lack of aroma.
Also known as poisonbean and rattlebush, this medium-sized shrub is a member of the legume family and is extremely poisonous.
Rattlebox is normally found in the southeastern United States, ranging from Texas to Florida.
The leaves of this plant are long and narrow and grow in pairs of 7 – 16 dark green leaflets. The seeds of this plant grow in small pods that rattle, which is where the plant got its name, and the flowers of this plant are normally yellow-orange.
If ingested, this plant can cause extreme illness and death. Definitely stay away from this plant if you want to survive, as animals who have eaten Rattlebox have been known to die within 24 hours!
4. Giant Hogweed
This plant was brought to the United States as an “ornamental curiosity” and can now be found all over the country. If you want to survive in the wilderness, the Giant Hogweed is one of those plants that are too toxic to even touch, and definitely should not be eaten.
Coming into contact with the sap of this plant can cause inflammation, lesions, and burns to form on the skin, while contact with the eyes can cause temporary or permanent blindness.
If consumed, this plant will likely cause serious illness or death. The stem of the Giant Hogweed can grow to lengths between 6 to 16 feet tall and is normally topped by an “umbrella” of white flowers. The leaves of the Giant Hogweed normally cluster at the bottom of the stem near the ground and are dark green and deeply lobed.
The Giant Hogweed has sometimes been mistaken for Queen Anne’s Lace, which produces wild carrots. The difference between the two plants is that Queen Anne’s Lace is much smaller than Giant Hogweed, averaging about 2 feet in length, and Giant Hogweed has purple spots on its stem.
Holly is great to deck the halls with, but not to put in your evening stew if you want to survive in the wild.
Holly is native to the eastern and southern regions of the United States. Its range extends from Texas to Missouri and from Massachusetts to Florida. Although the leaves of a holly plant can be used to make tea, the bright red berries famously incorporated into Christmas mistletoe are actually toxic.
When ingested, holly berries can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Holly berries have even been known to kill people who have eaten them. So if you want to survive your weekend hiking trip, it’s best to just leave them hanging from the ceiling where they can spread holiday cheer!
6. Horse Nettle
At first glance, the berries of a Horse Nettle plant can look like small cherry tomatoes, and during winter, when most other edible plants have died, they can look very appealing.
However, horse nettle has a number of toxins and alkaloids that can cause gastrointestinal irritation, constipation, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and death when consumed.
Horse Nettle can be found throughout the US in more temperate climates, and often have bright green leaves with small stalks that the berries grow off of. In the spring and summer, Horse Nettle will bloom white flowers that often have yellow or purple centers.
Pokeweed is commonly found throughout the Midwest, Gulf Coast, and eastern region of the United States. This plant, particularly the berries, can seem like an attractive option for a foraged meal. However, if you want to survive that meal, then it’s best to keep this plant off of your table!
The roots, leaves, stem, and berries of the Pokeweed plant are all poisonous to humans, with the highest amount of toxicity concentrated in the berries. If consumed, pokeweed can cause vomiting, spasms, and paralysis of the respiratory organs, which can lead to death.
Experts strongly advise avoiding all contact with this plant as the residue can soak into the skin and cause someone to be ill. Pokeweed often has a smooth green-white stem that tapers into a purplish color. The leaves of this plant are normally bright green and the berries are a purplish-black color.
The Canadian Moonseed is a vine-like plant that produces white flowers, dark green leaves, and clusters of bluish-purple berries. Moonseed can be found primarily in the eastern region of the United States, but its range extends as far southwest as Texas. Moonseed occurs most often in wooded areas or along the bank of a stream and can appear to be quite appetizing.
However, all parts of this plant are toxic and should be avoided. If consumed, moonseed can cause severe abdominal pain and indigestion and has also been known to cause paralysis and death.
When foraging, it can be easy to mistake moonseed berries for grapes, but the difference between the two is that moonseed berries have crescent-shaped seeds while grapes have round seeds. So if you see some juicy-looking berries while you’re hiking that look like grapes, make sure you check the seeds before you chow down if you want to survive that hike!
9. Mexican Prickly Poppy
Originally from Mexico, this plant can now be found in many regions throughout the US and in other parts of the world as well. It is not uncommon for the seed of the Prickly Poppy to be mistaken for mustard seeds as they appear to be very similar.
However, the seeds of a Mexican Prickly Poppy can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, swelling, and possibly death. Although the seeds are similar, the Mexican Prickly Poppy is aesthetically different from mustard plants with yellow or white flowers that have 6 petals. Unlike the mustard plant, the Mexican Prickly Poppy also has dark green leaves with spiked tips that often have a waxy resin on them.
10. Castor Bean
Despite its name, this plant does not produce any beans. It does, however, produce a high amount of ricin in its seeds. Even so, people actually cultivate these plants since they are highly sought after by bees.
Even so, when consumed by a human, these seeds can cause nausea, diarrhea, hypotension, and seizures that can last up to a week. Eating more than four Castor Bean seeds can be potentially lethal to a full-grown adult.
The Castor Bean is primarily found in the southwestern region of the United States as it grows best in warmer climates, but this plant has been known to grow in at least 28 different states.
Castor Bean plants can be identified by their large, glossy leaves that grow from long, reddish-purple stalks. The seeds of the Castor Bean plant are round and spiky. While useful to bees, if you see this plant when you’re out hiking, make sure to keep walking.
Honeyvine, as the name suggests, is a type of milkweed vine that can be found in the eastern and central regions of the United States.
Honeyvine most commonly has light green, twining vines with green, heart-shaped leaves. The flowers of the Honeyvine are often white and bloom in clusters, while the seeds are stored in large green pods that tend to have 3-6 seeds per pod.
However, this plant does not produce any honey and should not be eaten if you want to survive in the wild. If the residue of the Honeyvine comes into contact with the eyes, it can cause severe irritation or even eye damage. If Honeyvine is ingested, it can stop the heart of a full-grown adult. So best not to add this vine to your foraged trail mix.
Overall, when you’re in a survival situation, you’d definitely take indigestion over starving to death, but you don’t want to eat anything that will kill you. As such, having even a basic knowledge of non-edible plants can mean the difference between having a good meal, and having your last meal.
Although there is a very diverse range of non-edible plants, there are a few attributes that you can watch out for to tip you off. Many of these types of plants, such as holly and pokeweed, have bright-colored, attractive-looking berries that have a high concentration of poison in them. Along with this, many poisonous or non-edible plants are members of the same family, so knowing what family a plant is a part of can give you a general idea about whether or not you should avoid it.
Lastly, keep in mind that this article features a more generalized list of non-edible plants that can be found throughout the United States. However, many regions of the U.S. have harmful plants that are local to the area but are not found in other regions, and anyone who wants to survive in multiple environments will want to know how to identify local plants as well.
Another good idea for a book to have in your library is The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms (Click to see Amazon Listing) which can help you identify plants that you don’t want to pick up when you’re foraging for your evening soup.
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Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!