5 Poisonous Berries That You Should Steer Clear of – And 3 Wild Berries You Can Eat

Illustrated sign showing unsafe berries and safe berries to eat

 Treehugger / Ellen Lindner

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: Mistletoe

image of white mistletoe berries on the vine
Farrukh -- mistletoe / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) is a popular Christmas decoration with white or pink berries that grow in clusters. The entire plant is toxic, although the leaves contain more poison than the berries. Ingesting it may lead to symptoms such as blurred vision, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

European mistletoe (Viscum album) is more dangerous than its American counterpart, and serious poisoning and death due to ingestion have been reported. Viscum album is not sold in the U.S., nor is it a native plant.

Avoid: Holly berries

image of red winter holly berries on the tree
 Jack Berry -- Winter holly berries/ Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Holly contains theobromine, an alkaloid that is related to caffeine and found in chocolate. If a child eats about five holly berries, it is likely to be poisonous, yet most cases are harmless. It’s best to keep these out of reach during the holiday season.

Avoid: Jerusalem Cherry

image of orange Jerusalem cherry berries
mauro helern-- Jerusalem cherry / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

Jerusalem Cherries are often kept as colorful 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 toxic for cats, dogs, and horses.

Avoid: Yew seeds

yew seeds, image of red/orange yew seed berries
grassrootsgroundswell -- Yew seeds / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

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

ivy berries, image of ivy berries
A Bremner -- Ivy berries / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

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

image of red wintergreen berries
Sandy Richard -- Wintergreen berries / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

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 foraging blog "Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook" recommends making ice cream from wintergreen berries.

OK: Manzanita berries

image of green add pink manzanita berries on the vine
nick fullerton -- Manzanita berries / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

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 using Manzanita berries to make cider.

OK: Partridgeberries

image of partridge berries growing on the ground
June West / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

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 flavor. Partridgeberries have a history of being an effective treatment for easing childbirth and menstrual cramps. 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.

View Article Sources
  1. Mistletoe Poisoning.” U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus.

  2. Evens, Zabrina N., et al. Holiday Plants with Toxic Misconceptions. West J Emerg Med., vol. 13, 2012, pp. 538-42., doi:10.5811/westjem.2012.8.12572

  3. Solanum pseudocapsicum.” North Carolina State.

  4. Tranca, Sebastian, et al. “A Fatal Case of Taxus Poisoning.Clujul Med. vol. 86, no. 3, 2013, pp. 279-81.

  5. Fire Effects Information System (FEIS).” U.S. Forest Service.

  6. Hedera helix. North Carolina State.

  7. Prakash Raju, KNJ, et al. “Wild Tuber Poisoning: Arum maculatum - A Rare Case Report.” Int J Crit Illn Inj Sci., vol. 8, 2018, pp. 111-114., doi:10.4103/IJCIIS.IJCIIS_9_18

  8. Whiteleaf Manzanita.” U.S. National Park Service.

  9. Partridge Berry.” University of North Carolina.