Gone Outdoors

How to Identify Poisonous Berries

by Ben Team

The only way to identify poisonous berries, or to distinguish them from edible varieties, is by making a positive identification. Many edible berries have toxic look-alikes, and several deadly berries resemble harmless fruit. While purported guidelines for distinguishing between toxic and edible varieties abound, few are helpful, and many are simply incorrect.

Do Your Homework

Never eat any plant that you cannot identify with 100 percent certainty. A good first step for learning to identify poisonous berries is to obtain a few quality field guides and begin practicing identifying – but not eating – different plants and berries. Additionally, consider enrolling in an edible plant seminar or taking guided hikes with local naturalists to sharpen your skills. Different habitats and regions hold different native berries, so be sure to research the area in which you will be hiking or camping.

Faulty Premises

Many people assume that if they see animals eating a type of berry, that berry must be safe to eat. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many animals are capable of eating berries that may sicken or kill a human. For example, deer, chipmunks and birds relish the berries of Virginia creeper vines, but many authorities consider these toxic for people.

Color Does Not Count

The color of berries is often held as a useful characteristic for distinguishing between edible and poisonous varieties. The most common iteration states that most white berries are toxic; about half of the red berries are toxic; and most blue or black berries are edible. While this contention has some element of truth to it, many exceptions exist, including white mulberries, which are quite edible; and the black berries of the aptly named deadly nightshade.

Clues Demanding Caution

While no single criterion distinguishes all edible berries from all poisonous ones, a few broad guidelines are helpful. Avoid eating berries from plants that have an almondlike scent, which may indicate that the plant produces cyanide. Check to see if the plant has milky sap; many are toxic and produce poisonous fruit. This does not mean that all plants with milky sap are poisonous, nor does it mean berries that come from plants with watery sap are safe. Avoid fruit hanging from plants with leaves grouped in threes, or fruits enclosed in pods.

Universal Edibility Test

The U.S. Army includes a protocol called the “Universal Edibility Test” in field manual 3-05.70, a set of procedures designed to help soldiers determine which plants and berries are edible, while in a survival situation. To perform the test, users touch the unknown plant or berry to different parts of their bodies in a series of sensitivity tests. For example, a soldier may touch the plant to the skin of his wrist and wait to see if a reaction occurs before touching the plant to his lips. While this is preferable to blindly guessing which berries are edible, casual hikers or campers should not use the Universal Edibility Test on routine outings.

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