When you think of berries, you picture your produce section of the grocery store and the classics of strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry. But there are hundreds of equally delicious berries in the world that you may never taste unless trying them in the wild. And what if you’re lost outdoors and are hungry? If the berries are safe to eat, you know what you’ll do—pick and eat. If you know the berries are poisonous, you’ll leave it alone. But which is it?
What color berries are edible and safe to eat? About 90% of white or yellow berries are poisonous, and nearly half of reddish-colored berries are poisonous as well. Darker berries–blue and black– are least likely to be toxic. Although not all poisonous berries are fatal, the best advice is to avoid a berry that you cannot identify.
Many wild berries can be toxic or even deadly, so you don’t want to grab just any berry without proper research and expertise on the subject. This will be your ultimate guide to identify berries that are safe to eat, tips, and tricks to live by, and all the research you could dream of on how to survive in the wild! I hope you will never need these tips for that reason and can just enjoy a handful of lusciously juicy berries on a hiking trip through the mountains.
What Color Berries are Edible and Safe to Eat?
You may not need them for survival, and let’s pray that’s the case! But perhaps you’re just looking to expand your botany knowledge and try out some of nature’s best, fresh of the bush.
Regardless of the purpose, we cannot have you getting sick off berries or risking death, so please read about this subject with the seriousness it deserves and the respect it demands. Do not consume a berry you are uncertain of and do not risk being poisoned.
The general rules which people live by and you should keep in mind (if nothing else in this article!):
- Avoid white and yellow berries. We will mention one or two but to be safe, but I would recommend staying clear of these as most are poisonous.
- Half of the red ones are dangerous – it’s a 50/50, up to you and the degree of your hunger
- Black and blue berries are least likely to be poisonous – so in an emergency where you’re not sure which one to eat, go with the black or blue for a safer bet.
These are the general rules to keep in the back of your memory for an emergency situation, but not always applicable and should not be relied upon alone.
Botanists categorize berries within the foraging category of plants and mushrooms, with the number of sicknesses and deaths increasing by 10 people from 2010-2016:
The table below is a compacted summary of all cases that resulted in at least a minor outcome. The more detailed table shows the breakdown of cases of fatalities of plants vs. mushrooms each year as well as breaking up the deaths into intentional vs. unintentional cases.
|Year||Minor Outcome||Moderate Outcome||Major Outcome||Death Outcome|
|2016 Plants and Mushrooms||5668||1529||102||13|
|2015 Plants and Mushrooms||5226||1397||68||6|
|2014 Plants and Mushrooms||5067||1300||77||7|
|2013 Plants and Mushrooms||5124||1263||79||3|
|2012 Plants and Mushrooms||5358||1441||86||9|
|2011 Plants and Mushrooms||5343||1487||100||6|
|2010 Plants and Mushrooms||5648||1486||84||3|
As you can see, the majority of those that consume toxic berries only suffer a ‘minor outcome,’ and the number of deaths is considerably low but is steadily increasing.
We will cover the berries which are safe to eat in an upcoming section, but first, I think it makes more sense to understand the methods by which you can properly identify these berry types. Knowing the edible berries will be more interesting once you’ve learned the techniques of why and how they are safe.
These next couple of sections will be the most important, so get your notepad ready and perk up!
Ways to Detect Different Berry Types
It is more important that you know how to identify the poisonous berries and distinguish which are safe for consumption.
It is handy to carry a Berry and Wild Plant Pocket Guide with you if you are planning to consume berries. In the case that you’re not going on a hike to forage, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of this book in your car or with you in hiking situations in case you get stranded or lost.
For the sake of safety and winning odds, let’s avoid all white and yellow berries. You have a 10% chance of walking away healthy. That’s not a chance I want you to take.
The steps by which you examine each berry will be as follows:
- Examine the berry and the bush it is growing on before handling it with your hands.
- Take note of the color, shape, and size of the berries.
- Count the leaves on each branch and note the number of leaves as well as their shape and color.
- Consult your field guidebook or pocket guide to have a more accurate chance of accurately identifying the berry.
- Compare the physical traits to your book and decide for yourself if it is edible or not based on their descriptions.
When you decide which berry to eat, only eat one or two to start with. This is the best practice to be sure you don’t feel sick immediately after. Give it an hour or so to digest to confirm that you don’t have any adverse reactions to the small portion.
Compare all of these characteristics against your guidebook to be sure you have the right berry:
- Pulp texture
- Pulp color
- Leaf color
- Leaf pattern
- Seed amount
If all of the above characteristics match the description in your book, then you can more confidently move forward with the tasting sample.
If you’ve waited the full hour and feel fine, eat a few more but start out slow.
If you have extra water available, rinse your berries.
Tips & Tricks for Your Safety
Pay close attention to this section of tips and warnings while foraging for berries:
- Do not eat yellow or white berries (high risk of poison).
- Do not eat berries that have a milky inside. Usually, these are not safe for consumption.
- Do not eat berries with 3 leaves – these are akin to poison ivy.
- Do not eat berries with spurs or spikes. If it looks dangerous, it is not meant to be eaten.
- Do not eat berries with tiny hairs or fur-like textures.
- Tastes you should look out for and
spit back out are:
- Overly bitter
- Soapy flavor
It is normal for a berry to be tart, but just keep your senses attuned to anything that feels ‘off.’ Since looks can be deceiving, you cannot always trust appearances and need to use caution.
The Steps to Take When Eating A Wild Berry
Here is the precise way you will consume wild berries, whether just sampling for a picnic or consuming for survival needs in a situation of facing starvation.
The steps to take when you’ve found a new berry you are uncertain of goes as follows:
- Use the smash test and smash the berries against your arms or lips before consuming. If it causes irritation in the first 10-15 minutes, you do not want to eat it.
- Now touch the berry to your lip and mouth without placing it inside of your mouth. Take it away and see if your lips begin to tingle, or you see any negative side-effects like redness or itching on your lips. If so, do not consume and find a solvent to wash your irritated skin and dilute the berry’s effects.
- If the berry does not give you any irritation on your arm or lips, this is a good sign. You can progress by chewing up a berry and spitting it back out. You are not going to swallow the berry, so this is simply a chewing test, just like you’ve done with your arm and the outside of your mouth. If your mouth doesn’t tingle, burn, or feel inflamed in the first 10-15 minutes, you can proceed to eat a few berries.
- Eat one to three berries, but no more than this to start as many poisonous berries can harm effects after you consume a few.
- Wait about 20 minutes to an hour to see if your digestive system is showing any signs of poisoning like nausea, vomiting, or feeling ill (all symptoms listed in the section below).
- If you’ve waited the full hour and feel fine, consume up to a handful of berries but do not go beyond this. We want to be safe and not push the limits here, which means taking it slow and not consuming copious amounts of an unknown berry.
These steps should allow you to consume berries safely and responsibly. Follow the steps above by not pushing yourself or acting hastily.
NEVER eat a berry that you are uncertain of, and ALWAYS reference your guidebook. If you cannot place the name of the berry confidently, I recommend you avoid it altogether.
The Common Symptoms If You’ve Been Poisoned
Know what to look out for as you’re slowly taking the steps of rubbing the berry on your arm, touching it to your mouth, swallowing one or two, and then progressing to a handful. If you’ve done this edibility test, you should be fine.
However, if you feel that something is off, look for these vital signs that the berry is not safe for consumption. You may experience:
- Blurred vision
- Stomach cramping
If you feel you may have berry-poisoning, you need to call 911 for an ambulance or consult a doctor immediately.
If you have no access to a doctor or are lost in survival mode – you may need to make yourself vomit. We will cover more about action to take in a later section.
Berries That Are Not Poisonous
The berries which you can enjoy safely and can try with caution if you spot one are:
These grow common in the Northern Hemisphere and look like our traditional blueberry with a darker blackish shade. You can see more images of Elderberries here.
Often, they have reddish-pink vines and grow in clusters and taste like tart-fruit.
They are often made into juices and jams after being sweetened for their tart flavor and are packed with vitamin C.
The perks of consuming elderflower are:
- High in Vitamin C
- High in Vitamin B6
- Great for the immune system
- Like blueberries, these darker fruits are healthy antioxidants with anti-inflammatory effects
- Can fight cancer and help heart health
Sounds amazing, right? But if consumed in large quantities, these magic berries can be more dangerous than amazing.
Healthline writes that
“Symptoms of eating uncooked berries, leaves, bark or roots of the elderberry include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Elderberry is not recommended for children and adolescents below 18 years of age or pregnant or lactating women. While no adverse events have been reported in these groups, there is not enough data to confirm that it is safe.”
Always cook your elderberries, and you should be fine. Proceed with caution and don’t eat a high amount of these berries. Everything in moderation, as grandpa used to say.
Gooseberries can be found on a bush that will be about 1 meter tall. They come in a variety of colors, including green, red, and purple. They are almost like large grapes with watermelon patterns.
They are sometimes tart and sometimes very sweet. People utilize the fruit in pies, wine, and jams for its high vitamin C concentration.
These berries are safe to consume raw or cooked, and according to Healthy Eating will offer your body:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
- antioxidant protocatechuic acid
These berries grow in beautiful clusters and are purple to black in coloration. They are commonly used in pies, teas, jams, and many other dishes.
The health benefits of the mulberry include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B
- High iron concentration
- Reduces cancer risk
- High in antioxidants as many dark berries are
These berries are an excellent option for an afternoon snack and will be sweeter than many other wild berries, but there are rare cases of an allergic reaction. So always use the rule of starting slow and allowing a digestion period to determine if you’re showing any symptoms.
Muscadine berries look like large, dark purple grapes. Their plum-like appearance is filled with health benefits like:
- Vitamin B2
- High in fiber
- Aids in digestion
- Can aid in weight loss
- Resveratrol is found in muscadine berries and also found in grapes. Resveratrol shows anti-cancerous properties and may also protect against heart disease.
These berries will be a bit musky and not the best flavor, but in a situation of survival, they could save your life.
These look very similar to a standard strawberry, but wild strawberries will be smaller and less sweet.
The health benefits, according to Healthline of consuming wild strawberries include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B9
- Heart Health
- Cancer Prevention
Do be careful that they are, in fact, strawberries as there are many poisonous berries that can look similar but with spikes and more aggressive seed patterns. Reference your guidebook always and follow the 6 steps we covered in the section above called, ‘steps to take when eating a wild berry.’
Berries That Are Poisonous
The dangerous berries which you will need to avoid consuming under any circumstance are:
Holly Berries – Poisonous
These holiday berries that you see all over Christmas door wreaths, garlands, decorations, and gifts. These berries are beautiful but not edible.
Grown on an evergreen shrub and often adorning sharp points of 3 in the leaves, do not consume these or you will probably throw up.
Yew Berries – Poisonous
They almost look like red ear-buds or tiny red olives. These berries grow with long green needle-like leaves. If you must eat these for survival, always spit out the seed as that is the most dangerous part. Consuming more than three of these berries can easily cause one to feel sick or throw-up. This dangerous berry also escalates your heart rate and can cause you to faint.
Pokeweed Berries – Poisonous
The reason I wanted to add this berry to the list is that it looks very similar to berries that are edible. Like the Elderberry, pokeweed berries can be distinguished because they do not grow in a random cluster; it is an upward shape identical to that of corn on the cob.
If you see a blue-berry like fruit that is growing like a corn shape, steer clear. It may take around 10 berries, but these will make you sick quite shortly after consuming.
Dogwood Berries – Poisonous
These dark red berries will grow in clusters and usually have a brown bud or tip on the end. Dogwood berries are often spotted in the winter and have round leaves.
These are not deadly but will make you feel quite sick. They even look a bit dangerous, so when you are uncertain about a berry, trust how aggressive it looks.
You can kiss under this stuff but don’t eat it. There are toxic properties in mistletoe that make it unsafe for consumption.
There are many poisonous berries in the world, so we can’t list them all. Other common berries that are poisonous to look out for are:
- Dolls Eyes
- Jerusalem Cherry
- Privet Berries
- American Bittersweet Berries
Berries That Can Be Poisonous But Not Always
There are certain types that are safe on many occasions but also need to be watched out for. Some berries which you should examine extra carefully before consuming are:
These berries are “most often used to make gin, medicines and food dishes, as it is considered safe for human consumption,’ says Gardening Know How. These are often safe for consumption and are found all over the world. Juniper Berries were used for medical treatment for hundreds of years by many civilizations including native Americans.
Since there are 45 variations of the Juniper berry, I would recommend being very careful with this one as it’s difficult to tell which types are poisonous. All Juniper Berries will possess thujone, an oil that can cause nausea or vomiting if consumed in large quantities. It will just depend on how much thujone is in that strand of Juniper Berry.
These berries are nicknamed, ‘firethorn’ because of how irritating they can be to the skin. However, they are used in jams and jellies to add a bitter flavor as they are edible once cooked. These are not poisonous in low amounts, but to err on the side of caution, you do not want to eat a lot of the pyracanthas. Only consume if it’s from a trust jam or jelly producer that has verified this strain of Pyracantha is safe to consume.
There are many variations of this berry, with most being poisonous. I would avoid the Ivy Berries as Treehugger.com says, The berries are poisonous, although because they taste so bitter, it’s rare that a person ingests enough to become poisoned. The berries contain oxalates, needle-like crystals that cause pain and swelling in the lips, face, tongue, and skin.”
If You’ve Been Poisoned
If children or adults ingest poisonous plant berries and other parts, seek medical assistance immediately or call the National Capital Poison Center at 1 (800) 222-1222. The number here is routed to the poison control center that serves your area.
You can also contact Poison Control directly at Poison.org.
If you or someone else has consumed a wild berry and is showing the symptoms, having trouble breathing, go into seizures or go unconscious, always call 911 and get an ambulance to come to pick you up.
Once you’re on the phone with the poison control and tell them what you’ve consumed, they will give you specific instructions or an antidote that may be available.
These are the best steps to take if you are within the bounds of civilization, but what about if you’re lost in the wild?
If you’re stranded with no cell phone or way to communicate with Poison.org or a local ambulance, you may need to make yourself throw-up. It is not always best to do this, but in the difficult situation of being all alone with no way to reach help, the best tactic is to remove the substance that is toxic.
- Try to wash your hands off with water to purify from poisonous berries if you can.
- Then stick your finger to the back of your throat and try to make yourself throw the berries up.
There aren’t a lot of options in this scenario, so your only goal should be clearing your stomach of the toxic berries.
The Take-Away Tips
If you read nothing else on this article – take away these summarized tips:
- Do not consume yellow or white berries – 90% are poisonous, and it is not worth the risk unless you are sure they are safe.
- Do not consume berries with milky insides.
- Do not consume berries with spikes or thorns. If it looks like it doesn’t want to be eaten, it probably doesn’t.
- ALWAYS do a tasting test that should go as follows:
- Wipe it on your arm first and see if any irritation ensures
- Now touch it to your lips and see if there is any redness, itchiness, tingling, or irritation.
- Take one berry into your mouth and chew it but spit it back out. See if there is any irritation from this in your mouth.
- If signs indicate that this berry is okay, start with a few to sample. The real risk is that people consume high concentrations, which can lead to death. Consuming one or two and starting out slow will probably only result in some mind discomfort or vomiting.
- Wait 20 minutes to an hour after the first few berries to confirm you’re not suffering from any digestive pains.
- If all is well, eat a handful but don’t go any further to be safe.
Small progressions will be the method to take for your own safety and to forge-responsibly.
So many berries are delicious and packed with nutrients, and I don’t think you should fear experimenting with wild berries. Proceed with caution and always utilize the tasting steps we address above so that you can enjoy what you pick. Bon appetit.