Berries are delicious, nutritious, and full of antioxidants. But not all berries are safe to eat for humans. Some berries are poisonous and contain toxic chemicals, while others are edible.
There are over 100 wild berries growing throughout North America. However, only a few of these berries are safe to eat without causing harm to your body.
This article will cover common edible wild berries and poisonous berries. Then I’ll explain why each berry is dangerous and how to identify them to avoid eating ones that will make you sick.
- Related article: Wild Edible Plants
Let’s start off with the 10 types of wild edible berries that you’ll find when foraging in the wild.
1. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Elderberries are small black, blue, or purple edible fruits that grow in clusters. This plant can be easily found in woodlands and hedgerows throughout the eastern part of North America.
They have a tart and tangy taste, which is why they are usually cooked and sweetened before eating.
Elderberries are perfect for jams, juices, and syrups. They can also be used to make elderberry wine. An important piece of information to know is that these berries can cause nausea if eaten raw, since they contain alkaloid compounds that are only inactivated by cooking.
Elderberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin B6, which are both very useful for the immune system. They are also rich in flavonols and anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants.
2. Chokeberries (Aronia species)
There are two main species of chokeberries. The black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is the tastiest, while Aronia arbutifolia has red berries, which are drier and not as sweet.
Both kinds of chokeberries are safe to eat raw. When eaten fresh, they can have quite a tart taste. They are most commonly used to make jam, juice, tea, and wine.
Thanks to their high antioxidant content, they are starting to get recognition as a “superfood.” Nowadays, many health stores sell chokeberries, but you can also find them in the wild. They are common in swamps and wet woods in the eastern United States and Canada.
3. Buffalo Berries (Shepherdia species)
Buffalo berries are dark red wild fruits peppered with small white dots. The three existing species of buffalo berries are very similar and differ only in their range of distribution. The most common species is Shepherdia argentea, which can be found in the western US.
The buffalo berry can safely be eaten raw, but their skin can be rough, and they taste bitter. Therefore, they’re best enjoyed as jams and syrups.
They are very healthy as they contain a powerful antioxidant, lycopene, but only if eaten in moderation. Ingesting too many of these berries can cause diarrhea.
4. Cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus)
Cloudberry shrubs prefer higher altitudes and cool areas. Unfortunately, they only grow in the northern latitudes. In the Americas, they can only be found in the state of Maine and in Canada.
Cloudberries look similar to raspberries, except that they get paler as they ripen. When they are red like raspberries, they are in fact not yet ready to be picked. When ripe, they are yellowish/orange.
Cloudberries are soft, juicy fruits with a sweet and tart flavor. Cloudberries can be eaten raw and are a good source of vitamin C and ellagitannins, which are powerful antioxidants.
5. Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa)
Gooseberries are strange-looking green, red or purple berries, shaped like a globe and covered in tiny spikes, which aren’t a problem when eating them. They grow in wet woods, as they prefer humidity and shade, and are common throughout Northern America.
Gooseberries can be enjoyed as raw berries or made into jams and syrups. They can also be used as a filling for pies.
Gooseberries can be tart or sweet and are very rich in vitamin C and antioxidants. They also contain a high amount of dietary fiber, which makes them a perfect addition to your diet if you want to improve your digestion.
6. Hackberries (Celtis occidentalis)
Hackberries are small, purple fruits which are extremely sweet and crunchy. They can be eaten straight from the plant, but they are sometimes so hard that it can be difficult to chew them. In this case, it’s best to crush them to make a paste.
The interior of the hackberry contains a nut, packed with nutrients. In fact, they are very high in protein, carbohydrates, and fat, making them a sort of hybrid between a berry and a nut. They also contain good amounts of vitamins.
Hackberry trees are very common and can be found in most of North America, from the north in Ontario and Quebec, to the south in North Carolina. These plants prefer sunny areas, even if in favorable conditions they can also thrive in the shade.
7. Mulberries (Morus species)
Mulberries look very much like blackberries, though some can be red or white. It’s easy not to confuse them with blueberries, though, as they grow on trees rather than shrubs.
Mulberries grow in small clusters, and are juicy and sweet in flavor. You can eat mulberries straight from the tree or process them into pies or teas. The purple ones, which can stain your fingers and clothes when picking them, are tastier than the other varieties.
Mulberry trees are common throughout the temperate and subtropical regions. These berries are packed with vitamins, most notably vitamin C and B; minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, and iron; and antioxidants.
8. Rose Hips (Rosa species)
Rose hips come from many species of wild roses that are common in North America. Wild rose shrubs grow mostly in partially shaded areas.
All varieties produce edible flowers and fruits, some tastier than others. Theoretically, the cultivated varieties can also be eaten, but it’s best to avoid them because they are often sprayed with chemicals.
Rose hips are mostly red and can be very sweet, almost like an apple in taste, or less sugary, depending on the species. You can eat them raw, tossing aside the seeds, or engage in the lengthy process of separating seeds from pulp to make jams. They are also excellent for sweetening herbal teas.
These fruits contain small seeds covered with irritating hairs. Their most notable nutritional value is the high content of vitamin C, but they are also rich in beta-carotene and malic acid.
9. Saskatoon Berries (Amelanchier species)
Saskatoons are tiny blueberries that grow on shrubs or trees. The ripe berries have a deep blue or purple color. But they are often eaten by birds before they have completely ripened, so it might be a good idea to pick them when still pink to be able to have some.
Saskatoon berries can be eaten raw or used for jams and pies, but also as an ingredient for beer, wine, and cider. Their flavor is exceptional, tastier than blueberries.
They are an excellent source of vitamin B2, one of the best actually. Vitamin B2 is involved in the production of energy and is therefore essential for good health.
10. Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis)
Salmonberries are another fruit that looks similar to raspberries. Their name derives from the fact that they look like clusters of salmon eggs, partly because they are bright red or orange in color.
The salmonberry taste is very different, since they have large, bitter seeds and are quite tart. Even if they can be eaten raw, it’s best to combine them with other fruits and plenty of sugar to make jams or candies. They can also be used as a base for alcoholic drinks.
Salmonberries provide good amounts of vitamins K and C, and are also rich in manganese. These shrubs populate the western part of North America, and are especially common along the coast. They can also be found in moist forests and along rivers.
10 Poisonous Wild Berries to Avoid
Not all wild berries are safe to eat. Some contain toxic chemicals and are poisonous, so should not be consumed.
Here are 10 poisonous wild berries to avoid eating:
1. Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum)
Often used as a Christmas decoration, all of the mistletoe plant’s parts are poisonous. The mistletoe berries are pink or white and grow in clusters. If eaten, they can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, blurred vision, and bradycardia (reduced heart rate).
2. Holly Berries (Ilex species)
These small red berries are mildly poisonous. Holly berries can cause nausea and low blood pressure, though the effects differ based on the person’s age and health. They can be easily recognized because they grow very close to the stems.
3. Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
The bittersweet plant is a beautiful perennial vine which bears bright orange berries surrounded by a pod. These are toxic berries, as they contain solanine, which can cause nausea and diarrhea if eaten.
4. Jerusalem Cherries (Solanum species)
As indicated by its Latin name, the Jerusalem cherry berries contain solanocapsine, which can cause nausea, stomach infections and cramping.
Particular attention must be paid to avoid the unripe fruits, as they are the most toxic and can cause fever and tachycardia (increased heart rate), among other symptoms. These berries are yellow-orange in color and look like cherry tomatoes.
5. Pokeweed Berries (Phytolacca decandra)
The pokeweed berries are initially green and then turn dark purple as they ripen. They are sometimes mistaken for grapes, but are much smaller and grow on red stems, rather than woody ones.
The berries, leaves, stems, and flowers contain phytolaccatoxin which is poisonous to humans and other mammals. Eating pokeweed berries causes pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, and sometimes more serious gastrointestinal problems.
The greens need to be harvested and processed in a way that deactivates the toxic compounds, but it’s a long and complicated procedure that can be dangerous if not done correctly.
6. Ivy Berries (Hedera helix)
Common ivy berries contain saponin, which causes nausea and vomiting, and oxalates, that cause swelling of the lips, tongue and face. Ivy berries can be purple or orange-yellow in color and are very bitter, so that it’s not often that people eat enough of them to do real harm.
There are other kinds of ivy which look similar and are also toxic, such as Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidate) and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Not all ivy plants are dangerous, but when in doubt it’s best to avoid them all.
7. Yew Berries (Taxus species)
Yew trees are conifers with bright red berries that can grow all winter. The seeds of these berries are extremely poisonous and can cause symptoms such as coldness, tremors, difficulty breathing, and heart failure. The leaves of this tree are also poisonous and should be avoided.
8. Virginia Creeper Berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Virginia creeper is very similar to poison ivy, but its leaves have five leaflets, and it produces green flowers arranged in clusters.
These flowers mature into bluish-black fruits which contain dangerous amounts of calcium oxalate. This compound, also known as oxalic acid, is toxic for the kidneys and can cause death.
9. European Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
The European spindle shrub is very easily identifiable as its pink fruit capsules contain orange berries. The berries look beautiful but contain many toxic substances, such as glycosides, evobioside, evomonoside, and evonoside.
Thirty berries are enough to kill an adult, and a lower dose can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and stomach pain.
10.Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
The Lily of the Valley plant has bright red berries that grow close to the ground and contain toxic compounds that can cause cardiac arrest. Low doses lead to confusion, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal pain, and bradycardia (reduced heart rate).
The berries are the most dangerous, but the whole plant is poisonous and is similar to other non-dangerous ones, in particular some Maianthemum species.
Edible and Poisonous Wild Berries Finally Thoughts
There are several wild berries that are delicious, nutritious, and full of vitamins and minerals. They are also very easy to find, but there are some wild berries that you shouldn’t eat because they can be harmful and carry deadly toxins!
If you want to try eating wild edible berries, then make sure to know what type of berry you are picking. Some berries are edible only after being cooked, while others are safe to eat raw.
For more on wild fruits and plants that can be eaten, check out these articles: