There are many different species of red edible berries, both growing in the wild and as ornamental plants in gardens and public areas.
Not all red berries are edible though, so you should be careful to correctly identify the plant before eating the fruits, or even touching them.
Some red berry plants can be toxic through skin contact. Even if they aren’t, there’s always the possibility of ingesting the toxins by touching your mouth or eating something else without washing your hands.
- Related article: What Plants Can You Eat?
How to Identify Poisonous Red Berries
Children are especially drawn to the brightly colored berries, so they should be taught prudence when harvesting or playing outdoors. Also keep in mind that in many cases, other parts of the plant might be poisonous in addition to the fruits.
On a lighter note, many red berries are not only edible, but are also tasty and rich in important nutrients. Almost all of them are packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Whenever possible, it’s best to eat them fresh, in order to take advantage of their full nutritional value.
Another positive: many species are very easy to recognize and with a bit of study and practice, you can safely harvest in the wild without danger, even with children.
To correctly identify the plant, it’s not enough to look at the berries, which are sometimes easy to mistake for something they aren’t. It’s best to rely on multiple cues, such as leaf shape, bark color and texture, and size and type of plant. If in doubt, simply avoid eating.
You should also be mindful of the seeds, since those of many edible berries are toxic and should not be ingested. The cyanide they contain is actually only released if the seeds are chewed, but it’s always best to be careful.
Listed below are many of the most common red berries that you can find growing in North America, as well as some of the less well-known ones.
Most of them can also be grown in your garden, sometimes very easily. You can choose to plant some of the edible varieties. The berry plants can add a splash of color to the greenery, but it’s even better when you can also have a healthy and tasty snack that’s always ready to go.
10 Red Edible Berries
1. Hawthorn Berries (Crataegus species)
Throughout North America, there are at least 26 species of hawthorn, which are difficult to distinguish. All of them produce edible berry-like fruits, similar to apples but smaller.
Botanically, these fruits are actually pomes, just like apples. They are deep burgundy in color and grow in clusters. Hawthorns are small trees with long spines, which can make it difficult to harvest the fruits.
The taste of hawthorn berries varies greatly. You’ll have to try one from each tree before picking them, as some are too bitter. The sweeter ones can be eaten raw, while the rest can be used to make jams or juices. These berries can also be dried or used for tea blends.
Like apple seeds, the seeds of hawthorn berries contain cyanide, which is toxic to humans. The pulp is perfectly safe to eat and is rich in antioxidants, vitamins B and C, and pectin.
2. Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana)
Mountain ash is a small, deciduous tree or shrub that thrives on higher altitudes, especially on rocky slopes. It’s common in the northeastern states and in Canada.
These plants need a lot of sun and rich soils. Other similar species are also edible, such as the European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), and the green mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina).
The fruits of this tree are bright orange-red in color and they ripen in the fall. It’s best to wait until late winter before picking them, because the taste improves after they freeze. They are edible raw, but it’s best to cook them.
Be aware that the seeds of the mountain ash are toxic, so be careful of discarding them all. These berries are great for jams and sauces, which make a wonderful filling for homemade pies.
3. Barberries (Berberis species)
Barberries are berry shrubs native to Europe, now widespread in North America, mostly in the eastern part. Several species are present, with the most common one being the American barberry (Berberis canadensis). Barberries mostly grow in woodlands and old fields.
These barberry fruits are very refreshing when eaten raw, as they taste sharp and tart. Barberries are perfect for making jams and jellies, and they can be also used for teas. The seeds should not be eaten.
Barberries are rich in vitamin C and contain berberine, which is great for fighting winter colds, as it boosts the immune system.
4. Red Raspberries (Rubus strigosus)
Raspberry is a very common shrub, both in the wild and on fruit farms. In the eastern part of the US, it’s not unusual to find raspberry bushes in the undergrowth, or along trails and roads.
They are also common in overgrown yards and old fields, as they are an adaptable plant that is very easy to cultivate.
Sweet with just a hint of tart, raspberries are well-liked by all. To pick the best raspberries, be sure to look under the leaves of the oldest branches. Always be mindful of the thorns when harvesting these fruits.
Raspberries can be enjoyed fresh or as an ingredient in jams, pies, porridge, pancakes, and many other tasty recipes. They are rich in vitamin C and fibers.
5. Redcurrants (Ribes rubrum)
Redcurrants are small bushes, peppered with clusters of 5 to 10 small, red fruits that hang down towards the ground. There are many different species of currants, most of them barely distinguishable. Fortunately, they are all edible.
The only exception is Ribes viscosissimum, which can be recognized by the sticky substance that covers the leaves, the sticks, and the fruits. If eaten, this species is not extremely dangerous, but it can cause nausea and vomiting.
Redcurrants taste very tart, so not everyone enjoys them fresh. Most people use them to garnish pancakes, or to make jellies or cakes.
The redcurrant plant is a very good addition to any garden, as it can produce up to 9 lb. of currants in a single season.
Currants in general are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, in particular vitamin B.
6. Bunchberries (Cornus canadensis)
Bunchberry is an herbaceous plant native to the United States, Canada, and eastern Asia. It’s a common groundcover in forests, especially those populated by conifers such as firs and pines.
You won’t usually find an isolated bunchberry plant, as they tend to grow in groups that form thick mats. They can be easily spotted, as the red fruits are born at the center of the top 4-6 leaves of the plant.
Bunchberries are plentiful, but not very tasty to eat. They contain many large, hard seeds, and are quite mild in flavor. You shouldn’t let this stop you, though, because bunchberries are actually very healthy.
They contain high amounts of vitamin C, potassium, and flavonoids. Moreover, they are perfect for making jams, as they have a plenty of pectin, which helps the thickening process.
7. Nanking Cherries (Prunus tomentosa)
Nanking cherries are native to China and Japan and were introduced in the US at the end of the 1800s. Here, they thrive in the north, as they aren’t adapted to sustain the high levels of heat and humidity of the southern states.
Despite its common name, this plant is more closely related to plums, rather than true cherries. It’s a small shrub that produces plenty of round, red fruits.
Nanking cherries taste tart and refreshing, and they are full of antioxidants and vitamin C. They are often used for juices and jams, like many other red berries. They can also be added to pickled vegetables and mushrooms.
This plant is often cultivated in gardens as it is very easy to grow.
8. Pin Cherries (Prunus pensylvanica)
Pin cherries are another species that produce cherry look-alikes. These have a big pit, which helps explain why they aren’t hugely popular commercially.
In North America, pin cherries grow in the northeastern states and in Canada. They can also be found in the Appalachians and in certain areas of the Rocky Mountains. Look for them in fields with plenty of sun.
Pin cherries can be picked at the end of July, but they are very tart when eaten raw. They taste best when made into jams, jellies, and juices. These fruits don’t dry well, but they can be preserved with alcohol. Be mindful of not eating the pits, as they contain cyanide.
Not a lot is known about the nutritional values of these fruits, but they are supposedly rich in antioxidants.
9. Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis)
Salmonberries are red or orange fruits that grow closely together in small clusters, vaguely resembling salmon eggs. They grow on shrubs and are common in moist areas, such as near rivers and streams.
In North America, they are most abundant along the west coast and in wet forests in the interior of the country.
Salmonberries can be consumed raw, but they are very tart in flavor and contain bitter seeds. For this reason, they are usually paired with other berries and made into jams, adding plenty of sugar.
They are high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese.
10. Wild Strawberries (Fragaria virginiana)
Wild strawberries belong to the same family as blackberries and raspberries. They are smaller than the cultivated strawberries, but they make up for it in taste. Since their water content is lower, they are much more flavorful.
Look for them in moist areas exposed to the sun, particularly on grasslands, open woods, and forest edges. They are common throughout North America.
Wild strawberries are wonderful to eat raw, but they can also be used in many recipes instead of cultivated farm strawberries. Just a few examples are jams, pies, and smoothies. The leaves of this plant are also edible, and they can be dried and used to make tea.
Wild strawberries are especially high in vitamin C.
10 Red Non-Edible Berries
When foraging for red berries and you come across these in the list below, be sure to avoid them as they’re non-edible red berries.
1. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Winterberry is a very hardy shrub that grows throughout most of the United States and Canada in wet areas, such as swamps and moist forests.
Despite their beauty, these berries can cause low blood pressure and nausea if ingested. Birds love them, but only after one or more winter frosts. They are otherwise too tough even for them.
2. American Holly (Ilex opaca)
This large, evergreen tree is closely related to winterberry. It’s native to the eastern and southern parts of the US, where it grows in moist forests.
Its fruits are toxic to humans. The berries are not only poisonous to humans, but also cats and dogs. They can cause fatigue, dehydration, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Though the berries of this plant aren’t edible, its leaves and sap are. The leaves can be dried and used to make herbal teas, while the sap is an excellent tonic.
3. Red Berry Mistletoe (Viscum cruciatum)
This red berry species of mistletoe is related to the more well-known European one with white berries. They are both perennial plants that grow on other trees and shrubs and partly rely on them for nutrients.
The translucent red, sticky berries of the Viscum cruciatum are very poisonous, just like the rest of the plant. Ingesting any part of this semi-parasitic shrub can cause serious illness and even death.
4. Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus)
Butcher’s broom is a shrub that produces large, glossy red berries which grow in small clusters. It’s common as an ornamental plant.
The butcher’s broom’s red berries are poisonous and can cause digestive problems. On the other hand, the root has been used for centuries as a traditional remedy for infections and poor blood circulation.
5. Cotoneaster (Taxus species)
Cotoneaster is native to China, but is naturalized in much of North America.
It’s an evergreen shrub with clusters of red berries that are poisonous to humans, dogs, and livestock. In small quantities, they only cause stomach problems, but if many berries are eaten, the symptoms can be much more serious.
More serious conditions include gastroenteritis, weakness, difficulty breathing, and seizures.
6. Spindles (Euonymus europaeus)
Spindles are non-edible berry trees or shrubs that are easy to recognize, since their red berries have a very unusual shape. They are reddish-pink in color, with four lobes that encase tiny, orange seeds.
Despite their interesting appearance, these red berries are poisonous, with laxative effects. The leaves are also toxic to humans, while other animals can feed on the whole plant without problems.
7. Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Lily of the valley is an exquisite little plant that bears white, pendant flowers. These sweetly scented flowers mature into red toxic berries.
Eating a small amount of these red berries causes confusion, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal pain, and bradycardia (reduced heart rate), while a higher quantity can lead to cardiac arrest.
8. Tartarian or Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
These tartarian shrubs have small fruits that start as green and become red when ripe in July. They are toxic to people, and even birds avoid them. Tartarian is easy to identify thanks to its dark green leaves.
The symptoms they can cause are quite mild compared to other poisonous plants, and include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
9. Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
Bittersweet nightshade looks similar to a cherry tomato plant, with its small, round, red fruits. It’s extremely dangerous to eat these berries, especially for children.
Symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, delirium, bleeding in the stomach or intestines, convulsions, and even death.
10. American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
American bittersweet can be confused with nightshade, but it’s not as poisonous. The red berries are still toxic though, and can sometimes cause death in pets and children.
Most often, eating the berries or leaves of American bittersweet causes sickness. Fortunately, poisoning doesn’t occur often, as this plant has a very unpleasant smell.
Red Edible Berries and Poisonous Ones Final Thoughts
It’s important to know which red berries are edible and which ones aren’t if you like to forage for berries. If you’re unsure about any of the berries listed above, then you shouldn’t try them!
It’s best to avoid any berries, fruits, and plants that you are not sure are safe. You could end up seriously sick or even dying from eating something toxic.
To learn more about identifying other berries and plants, check out these articles: