3 Wild Berries You Can Eat—and 5 You Should Always Avoid

Learn what's edible and what's not.

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 colorful, 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. Let's start with the ones that you should always steer clear of.

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. Interestingly, the poison comes from "viscotoxins," which are small proteins that kill human cells but do not harm birds.

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 berries contain 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. Poison Control says that ingestion can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and drowsiness. It’s best to keep these out of reach during the holiday season—or at least make sure there are no tantalizing berries on the branches you display if a curious child is likely to sample them.

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 or small peppers, making them an easy target for children. The berries contain solanocapsine, which causes gastric problems and vomiting if ingested by children. The fruit is toxic for cats, dogs, and horses, as well. The unripe fruits are particularly toxic and early symptoms can include fever, sweating, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, and increased heart rate.

Avoid: Yew Seeds

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

Yew plants are an evergreen shrub. The seeds inside a brightly colored 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, and these tend to be most poisonous in winter. Ingestion can lead to a range symptoms from difficulty breathing, blue lips, and headache, to a coma state and slow or irregular heartbeat.

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.

Oxalates are a common form of poisoning treated in hospital emergency rooms, and death is rarely reported as the outcome, but it's still not an experience you'd ever want to seek out. Garden Guides recommends keeping Boston ivy out of your yard if there's any risk of berries being eaten by children or pets.

Not all wild, uncultivated berries are poisonous, however. There are a few types that are perfectly safe to eat. Let's take a look now at the safe list.

OK: Wintergreen Berries

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

Wintergreen is a common ground cover 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. You can even chew on a few leaves for some natural breath freshener.

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. The fruits can be used for jams and jellies, according to Mother Earth News, as well as a thickener in foods or a beverage. Manzanita means "little apple" in Spanish.

OK: Partridgeberries

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

These berries 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. Some describe them as rather bland, though high in vitamin C, tannin, anthocyanins, and antioxidants. 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 to avoid any unwanted side-effects.

View Article Sources
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  2. Schwarcz, Joe. "Mistletoe Can Be Highly Toxic to Humans." McGill University: Office for Science and Society.

  3. 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

  4. Solanum pseudocapsicum.” North Carolina State.

  5. "Jerusalem Cherry," Children's Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service.

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

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

  8. "Yew Poisoning," Mount Sinai.

  9. Hedera helix. North Carolina State.

  10. 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

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

  12. Partridge Berry.” University of North Carolina.