A number of common houseplants and decorative plants have highly toxic berries, which make them a risky choice to keep around if you have small children or pets that can't resist the allure of a colourful, juicy-looking berry. By learning what's edible and what's not, you can also take advantage of the berry bounty that may exist in nature close to your home. Read on to find out which berries are best avoided and which can be foraged for local and seasonal eating.
Avoid: Holly berries
Holly contains theobromine, an alkaloid that is related to caffeine and found in chocolate. If a child or dog eats 1-2 holly berries, it is unlikely to cause a problem, but 20 berries could be fatal. It’s best to keep these out of reach during the holiday season.
Avoid: Jerusalem Cherry
Jerusalem Cherries are often kept as colourful houseplants in the winter months. Their berries look like orange cherry tomatoes, making them an easy target for curious children. The berries contain solanocapsine, which causes gastric problems and vomiting if ingested by children. The fruit is more toxic for cats, dogs, and birds.
Avoid: Yew seeds
The seeds inside a yew berry are poisonous, rather than the fruit itself, and are known for causing death very suddenly. All species of yew contain highly poisonous alkaloids called “taxanes,” which are found in every part of the tree except the fleshy fruit part around the seed.
Avoid: Ivy berries
The berries on ivy plants of all kinds are best avoided, whether English creepers, Boston ivy, evergreen climbers, or poison ivy. 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.
Not all wild, uncultivated berries are poisonous, however. There are a few types that are perfectly safe to eat.
OK: Wintergreen berries
Wintergreen is a common groundcover plant in the northern tier of the United States and much of Canada. Its leaves are dark green and waxy, and the plants produce a red berry (also known as teaberry) that is perfectly safe to eat. Hank Shaw of the wonderful foraging blog "Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook" recommends making ice cream from wintergreen berries, or try these wintergreen muffins.
OK: Manzanita berries
Manzanita bushes grow on the West coast of the U.S. and its berries are silvery-green ovals. If you popped one in your mouth, it would taste pretty vile, since the berries are full of tannin, but there are many historical records of Native Americans and Europeans using Manzanita berries to make cider. Hank Shaw tried his hand at it and was successful. You can find his recipe here.
These are native to North America and grow wild in eastern Canada and the U.S. They are dark red like cranberries and very tart, but are smaller with an earthy flavour. Eat the Weeds explains that partridgeberries have a history of being an effective treatment for easing childbirth and menstrual cramps. Partridgeberries also contain lots of natural pectin, which makes them great for thickening chutneys. They are great cooked with chicken and venison, or served with cheese.
As with all wild foraging, make sure you have proper identification before consuming.
Note: This updated article was originally published in 2014.