Mad About Berries

Wild Berries Guide: Edible and Poisonous Berries

There are lots of delicious berries out there that Mother Nature has provided for our enjoyment, but there are also a lot of sneaky lookalikes that can make you severely ill should you ingest them. Knowing the difference between edible and poisonous berries is vital if you’re out berry-picking in the wild. Here’s how you tell if you should avoid a berry plant.

In general, if a berry plant has sharp spines, milky sap, or a bitter smell, you should avoid ingesting it at all costs. Using your knowledge of berry species is vital when picking wild berries, and if you’re ever in doubt, don’t eat wild berries.

Published: November 26, 2022.

An abundance of caution is essential in staying safe while you’re out picking wild berries. Some of these tempting treats can be delectable, while others are downright dangerous.

The rest of this article will discuss how you can identify safe and dangerous berries, as well as some good practices to follow while you’re out berry-picking.

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What Makes a Berry Poisonous?

Berries are small fruits that usually grow in a cluster, containing in nature are designed for animals, including humans, to eat. These delectable offerings are meant to help the plant reproduce.

Others, however, contain deadly poison that can be fatal to humans. In most berries, berberine is responsible for this chemical reaction that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing vomiting, diarrhea, stomach issues, fever, and, in some cases, shock.

For those who are allergic to berries, an anaphylactic reaction can occur, causing a life-threatening medical situation. Another common toxic compound is saponins, found in snowberries and holly berries.

Deadly nightshade is among the worst of these toxic plants, containing trophine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine, all of which are harmful to humans.

These defensive measures are naturally produced by some berry plants and can inhibit your body’s ability to function properly.

While this is all fine and well in the natural world, it starts to affect our lives by virtue of a single problem: poisonous berry plants often look extremely similar to edible plants, making them a tremendously dangerous gamble if you don’t know how to identify the good from the bad.

As such, for anyone wanting to try wild berries (which, it should be noted, is not recommended in the first place), proper identification methods are paramount to staying safe.

How to Identify Poisonous Berries

Of course, the best way to identify poisonous berries is to understand what each species looks like and how to spot the subtle differences between berries like the sumptuous cherry tomato and the terribly unpleasant horsenettle.

That’s not always the most practical approach, however, and it’s always good to go into the forest with some general knowledge first. When you spot a berry that looks edible, start by examining its features.

Sometimes, these can give you context clues that you shouldn’t be eating these berries.

Sharp Spines

Start by observing the stems of the plant. If you spot some sharp spines, then you know right off the bat you shouldn’t be eating these particular berries.

Remember, toxic berry plants are actively trying to discourage predators and feature several defense mechanisms—not just their toxic berries—to ward off munching menaces.

These sharp spines are meant to discourage larger mammals from eating the berry plant, lest they suffer some painful pricks. Take a word of caution from these sharp spines and leave the berry be.

Milky Sap

Another telltale sign that the seemingly tasty treat is actually a deadly poison is milky sap. This off-white or discolored substance is meant to discourage predators, and it should certainly discourage you from trying these berries.

Other Signs to Watch Out for

Some other problematic signs you should keep an eye out for include:

  • Berries in pods or bulbs
  • A three-leaf growing pattern
  • Pink, purple, or black spurs
  • A bitter or unpleasant smell or taste
  • Spines or prickly hairs
  • White, yellow, or green berries

The classic rule of “Leaves of three, let it be” applies to berries, too. Keep a healthy respect for nature and avoid plants with these characteristics.

Be especially careful with red berries. We consume a lot of domestic red berries, so it’s only natural that in the wild, we’re drawn to berries that look like our favorite treats; however, only half of all red berry species are safe to eat, which makes experimenting with them a foolish idea.

In general, red berries in clusters are dangerous, while berries suspended on their own are more likely to be safe.

Blue and black berries are often safe to eat, as well as berries that are aggregated (think raspberries or blueberries).

With any of these general rules, there is always an exception, so never rely exclusively on the likelihood of a berry being safe. If you cannot identify a wild berry, do not eat it.

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Sensible Berry-Picking Habits to Follow

While you’re out in the forest, it’s always a good idea to follow some fundamental rules when identifying and trying wild berries.

Know Your Area

First, know your region. Consult with local experts or pick up a guidebook for the local berries in your area. That will give you a lot of the information you need to avoid being tricked by a poisonous pretender.

Sample Carefully

Even if you’re confident you’ve selected an edible berry and not a toxic lookalike, take some sensible precautions before eating it. Squish the berry and apply a tiny bit of the juice to your forearm, gums, and lips.

If there is any irritation after 5 minutes, discard the berry and do not eat it. If you’ve got the all-clear so far, put the berry in your mouth for 10-15 minutes to see if any irritation occurs.

If not, then you can eat a single berry and wait 20 minutes after eating it to see if there are any negative effects.
Even after this, you’ll want to pace yourself eating a new wild berry, just in case.

Of course, if the berry tastes terrible, then spit it out and don’t eat it—it’s not going to taste good, and it’s probably poisonous.

Take Action Right Away

Should you mistakenly ingest a poisonous berry, call Poison Control or any emergency center right away and follow any instructions they provide.

Make sure you are able to identify the berry you’ve eaten, since different toxins have different effects on the body. A better understanding of what’s ailing you will help the doctors treat you more effectively.

Avoid Reckless Berry Sampling

At the end of the day, there’s really not much reason to eat wild berries if you don’t have an accurate, up-to-date infographic with you that shows you the difference between an edible berry and its deadly counterpart — it’s just not worth the risk unless you’re an expert botanist.

Some of these berries are dangerous and can kill you if ingested in great quantities. Even if you’re in a survival situation, you shouldn’t risk it.

Berries simply don’t offer caloric or nutritional value when compared to the risk of incurring toxicity.

Getting sick in a survival situation is the last thing you want to do since the toxins can leech valuable resources from your body in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea, causing a loss of vital fluids.

Don’t Copy Nature

In addition, you should never eat wild berries just because you see other mammals doing it.

Human biology and the biology of other mammals are not comparable when it comes to berries, and you should always rely on your berry-identifying knowledge rather than your observation of other animals.

The Universal Edibility Test

One resource you can rely on, found in the U.S. Army Survival Manual, is the Universal Edibility Test, which can help you identify safe plants and berries to eat should you need to resort to it and are out of other options.

Just keep in mind that this is a general guideline and doesn’t apply to every single poisonous berry under the sun. As such, never rely on the Universal Edibility Test if you have any other, safer food options. With that being said, the Universal Edibility Test goes as follows:

1. Avoid eating 8 hours before beginning the test

2. Test only a small part of a potential food source at a time

3. Separate the plant into its stems, leaves, roots, buds, and flowers

4. Smell each part of the plant for acidic or otherwise overpowering odors

5. Place a piece of the plant on the inside of your elbow or wrist and wait, taking nothing but water for 15 minutes. If a reaction occurs, disregard the plant as a food source

6. If there’s no reaction, touch a bit of the berry juice to your lips to test for a burning or itching sensation

7. With no reaction after 3 minutes, place the berry on your tongue for 15 minutes without swallowing

8. If there’s still no irritation, swallow

9. Wait 8 hours for side effects. If there are any, drink plenty of water and induce vomiting

10. If there are no negative effects, eat ¼ cup of the plant part in the same manner and wait another 8 hours. If no negative effects occur, then the plant part is safe to be consumed

Identifying Some of the Deadliest Berries

Now that you’ve got a reasonable understanding of how to test anything new and (hopefully) a newfound respect for the potent defense mechanisms Mother Nature has at her disposal, we’ll take a look at some of the most dangerous lookalikes and go over how to identify them.


It’s no exaggeration that the word “deadly” is always attached to the name of this plant.

While this subshrub has merit as a medicine and cosmetic in some forms, it’s highly toxic when ingested, holding its place as one of the most toxic plants in the eastern hemisphere, with all parts of the plant containing tropane alkaloids.

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The berries of this plant appear edible, with their shiny black hue, making them especially dangerous to children who know no better.

To identify this plant, be on the lookout for its distinct purple flowers, bell-shaped blooms, and clustered, shiny blackberries. They often grow in wooded areas and fields, reaching up to 7 feet in height.

If you spot a subshrub with 7-inch oval purple leaves and green tinges, avoid it at all costs.


Another incredibly dangerous plant widespread in the northern hemisphere is Elderberry, a genus containing up to 30 species, only one of which, Sambucus Nigra, is edible.

Note: Black Elderberry is only edible when fully ripe. If it is not fully ripe, don't eat it. Personally, when You collect black elderberries, make jams, pies, and similar.

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This plant has leaves with 5-10 leaflets that range from 2-10 inches in length, bearing clusters of cream flowers during the springtime.

Be on the lookout for these clusters (that classic rule of toxicity) of blue-black, blue, or red berries since they are highly dangerous.

The entire plant contained glycosides, which turn into cyanide as it’s metabolized. Ingesting enough can cause a toxic buildup and be fatal.

Lily of the Valley

With a name so beautiful, you’d find it hard to believe that this plant is so deadly, but Convallaria Majalis is a highly poisonous flowering plant found in the northern hemisphere in Asia and Europe, as well as the southern Appalachian Mountains.

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The stems can reach almost 12 inches tall, with one or two leaves ranging from 4-10 inches on the stem. At the apex, the flowers have six white tepals featuring a small red-orange berry that has a few seeds.

All parts of this plant are highly toxic, especially the berries, causing stomach pain, vomiting, and a slowed heart rate.

Like elderberry, the Lily of the Valley is filled to the brim with glycosides, causing a potentially fatal reaction in the body.

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And yes, Lily of the Valley is a very decorative plant, often used even indoors on its own or as part of flower bouquets.


Found in the eastern region of North America, the baneberry contains toxins that sedate the heart and cause the cardiac muscle tissue to relax, potentially leading to cardiac arrest.

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This can cause severe symptoms, including salivation, diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, headaches, dizziness, and hallucinations.

The berries only grow 1.5 to 2 feet in height and can be up to 3 feet wide. When it blooms in the spring, its berries are white and round in shape with a black dot in the center.


Native to North America and Asia, the Moonseed has green leaves and black berries that look similar to the fox grape, which makes it a particularly deadly lookalike. You’ll likely find it in thickets and near the banks of streams.

Overdosing on Moonseed berries can cause convulsions and, in severe cases, death.

The Most Commonly Mistaken Berries

Now that we’ve discussed some of the most deadly berries that you should absolutely be able to identify if you’re picking berries in an area where they may grow, it’s worth discussing some of the most commonly mistaken berries and their lookalikes.

Cherry Tomatoes and Horse Nettle

Cherry tomatoes are a delicious treat, and the plump red berries this plant produces can come in red, yellow, or green. If you see what looks like a cherry tomato plant with yellow berries, beware.

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You could be looking at the horsenettle, a plant responsible for respiratory distress, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Horsenettle is a perennial with spiny stems (there’s your first warning) and white and purple flowers arranged in elongated clusters.

California Wild Grapes and Virginia Creeper

The California Wild Grape has broad, wide leaves and is a persistent ivy that grows the grapes we all know and love. Its lookalike is the Virginia Creeper, a vine often confused with poison ivy that has five leaflets instead of three.

The leaves on the California Wild Grape are much broader, and one of the main ways you can tell these two apart is with the Virginia Creeper’s five leaflets. When ingested, the Virginia Creeper’s berries can cause kidney damage or death.

It’s important to note that the Virginia Creeper is not toxic to birds, so just because you see a bird eating a berry doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Fox Grape and Canadian Moonseed

Moonseed deserves a second mention simply for how well it imitates the bunches of grapes we’re all familiar with.

The Fox Grape is a species of grapevine in North America, while the Canadian Moonseed is a woody climbing vine. Both have wide leaves, and both feature clusters of berries.

On Moonseed, you’ll notice the leaf lobe tips have sharp points, while the leaf margins are not toothed. Grapes, on the other hand, have toothed leaves and curled tendrils.

In all honesty, these two are extremely difficult to tell apart, so it’s best to avoid sampling from any wild grapevines you see.

Summer Grape and Pokeberries

The Summer Grape is a fast-growing vine that generally has a three or five-lobed leaf. The Pokeberries, on the other hand, feature tear-shaped leaves that do not feature lobes.

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In addition, the Pokeberry plant has black berries, reddish juice, and purple stems.

Keep an eye out for this imposter since its berries can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a drop in blood pressure, stomach pains, and even death.

Wintergreen Berries and Holly

Wintergreen berries are shrub that flourishes in winter. Its berries see use in various recipes, but unfortunately, these bright red berries are easily confused with the deadly Holly shrub.

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This plant has an extremely distinct spiky leaf shape, and ingesting it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, and abdominal pain.

Thankfully, when it comes to Holly, it’s a lot easier to recognize due to its prominence as a Christmas decoration.

Buffaloberries and Cotoneaster

Buffaloberries are easy to mistake for poisonous berries since they do tend to taste quite bitter. These red berries with white flakes are grown on small shrubs and can easily be mistaken for Cotoneaster.

The main difference, however, is that Cotoneaster shrubs are much taller than Buffaloberries shrubs. In addition, Cotoneaster features bright orange berries, while the Buffaloberries are red with white flecks.

Although not as deadly as some others on this list, Cotoneaster can still cause heavy breathing, seizures, and weakness when ingested, and it is still deadly if consumed in large quantities.

Huckleberries and Ivy Berries

Huckleberries see a lot of use in jam and are quite common to spot all around North America. Their bright blue berries differ from Ivy berries, which grow on your bog-standard English ivy.

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Thankfully, if you can identify their 3-5 lobed leaves, then you’ll be able to spot the difference between these two easily.

Ivy berries are an important food source for birds, so it’s important to reiterate that some birds can ingest foods that are toxic to us. Ivy berries can cause swelling of the tongue, as well as the usual vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Tomatoes and Jerusalem Cherries

Tomatoes are domesticated plants found in most places around the world, but if you spot what looks like a tomato in the wild, be wary of the Jerusalem Cherry, with its globose yellow-orange fruits that you can distinguish by their paper-like sac. They grow up to 3 feet tall, and their fruits aren’t generally as big as tomatoes.

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Some people don’t react badly to eating Jerusalem Cherries, but you may experience abdominal pain, vomiting, gastroenteritis, and diarrhea.

Few Final Thoughts

It’s always a good idea to stay safe out there when you’re experimenting with a new area, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the plants you’re encountering. If you’re ever in doubt, do not eat a wild berry; instead, go home and research its appearance so that you can identify it next time.

In general, you can spot toxic berries by their sharp spines, tendency to grow in clusters, milky sap, and bitter taste or smell. If any of these symptoms are present, it’s likely that you’re looking at a berry species that are toxic to humans.

Most species of toxic berries are deadly if ingested in too large quantities, and even eating a small amount can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, convulsions, and severe stomach cramping.

At the end of the day, you should always rely on visual infographics to identify potentially dangerous berries and always avoid eating anything you can’t identify.

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