11 Poisonous Berries You Really Don’t Want to Eat

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There are many types of poisonous berries, but these are some of the world’s most deadly – well at least in the temperate northern hemisphere.  

*** CAUTION! If you or someone you know has been an unknown berry, call your local poison control IMMEDIATELY! This article is not intended to be medical advice.

The good news is, that there are many poisonous berries out there that probably won’t kill you.  In fact, many have traditionally been used as medicine.  I think I should add that this is not an invitation to run around playing Russian Roullete with unknown berries. Assuming that you are only trying them out to ward off starvation, your body is going to be extra sensitive to any toxins.  Throwing up any precious food or water that you’ve collected, or subjecting yourself to debilitating effects such as seizures is not going to help your situation. If you are in such a dire situation that you need to test out an unknown berry, use the universal edibility test outlined in the video below.

However, by learning the most deadly berries in your area, you might gain some insight on what to avoid and save yourself some precious time and discomfort by skipping them for the edibility test.  

Note that if you are going to wandering the tropics, your list is going to look quite different.  Also note that there are plenty of poisonous berries here that I haven’t listed.

So without further ado, I bring you some of the temperate word’s most deadly berries.  

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (Atropa belladona)

Other Names

Belladona, devil’s cherries 

About

On the top of the list of poisonous berries is one of the most dangerous. All parts of deadly nightshade are poisonous, but the berries are sweet and juicy, making them attractive to children and unwary foragers. Despite the name, they are not actually true nightshades (I’ll get to those later).  Deadly nightshade has been used throughout history as a poison – an early form of biological warfare.  It is also important in mythology and folklore. Like many poisonous plants, small doses have been used in medicine throughout history, as well as in modern medicine.

Description

General:  About 1.5 metres tall.
Leaves: Dull green, growing in an alternate pattern. Untoothed and elliptical in shape.
Click here for a quick brush up on leaf terminology.
Flowers: Purple green colour, bell-shaped,  2.5–3cm in length.
Berries: Shiny black in colour, 1.5 cm in diameter, sweet-tasting, five distinctive sepals grow at the base of berry.  

Range

Native to southern Europe and Asia, but introduced to other parts of the word, including the US.

Symptoms and Toxicity

Can cause rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, delirium, vomiting, hallucinations, and death due to respiratory failure. As little as 600 mg can cause symptoms.  That’s less than one berry.

YEW (Taxus spp.)

Other Names

Ground hemlock

About

Yew berries are not actually berries, but modified cones – cones that look pretty inviting to a child or hungry forager. Yew is a conifer; however, unlike many conifers that yield edible needles (for an excellent vitamin C rich tea), all parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the seed. Yew’s main toxin, taxol, is used in chemotherapy – a fact that has caused overharvesting, leaving some yew species threatened or endangered. Synthetic taxol is now produced in labs, but yew populations have yet to spring back.

Description

General: Evergreen shrub or small tree, growing from 2 to 18 m in height.
Leaves: Flat, pointed needles, evergreen.
Berries: From far away appear to be small, round, red berries. On closer inspection, they resemble a cup with a single hard seed in the middle.

Range

Yew grows wild all over the temperate northern hemisphere, as well as some subtropical regions. It is also grown as an ornamental.

Symptoms and Toxicity

Ingestion of any part of the yew plant can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, impaired vision, muscle spasms, Ataxia, diarrhea, hypotension, hypothermia, coma, seizures, weakness, respiratory failure, heart palpitations and cardiogenic shock. 50 g of needles is considered enough to be a lethal dose.

RED AND WHITE BANEBERRY (Actaea rubra) and (Actaea pachypoda)

Other Names

White baneberry: doll’s eyes, white cohosh, toadroot, white beads, necklace weeds
Red baneberry: red cohosh, snakeberry

About 

Baneberry is aptly named.  Both species will cause burning to the mouth – not pleasant, but also a good warning to not eat them.  They aren’t toxic to birds (as with many berries on this list), so don’t be fooled if you see some feathered friends chowing down on them. It is often sold as an ornamental (sometimes under the name Cimicifugs) so beware if you have yew in your yard. The genus Actaea contains 30 species, all of which are toxic.  Another well known poisonous berry, black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) is also included in the genus. 

Description

General: Both plants are herbaceous perennials (they die back and regrow each year). They grow up to 120 cm tall, but usually a good deal smaller.
Leaves: Deeply lobed with coarse teeth, can be compound or simple (both often both are found on the same plant). 
Flowers: Both plants have white flowers growing in rounded clusters. Each flower has 3-5 sepals that are 2-4 mm long and 5-10 petals.
Berries:
Red baneberries are red and shiny, fleshy, and typically 5-11 mm long. Grow in clusters at end of stems.
White baneberries are white with black dots on top (hence the name dolls eyes). Grow in clusters at the ends of green or pink stems and are 6.5-9 mm long. Stems are considerably thicker than those of red baneberry.  

Range

Red baneberry: Canada and Northern United States.
White baneberry: Eastern United States and Canada Canada; subtropic, temperate, and subarctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America.

Symptoms and Toxicity

As few as two berries can cause serious symptoms. Most sources quote that six can be enough to kill an adult.  Baneberry can cause bloody diarrhea, delirium, dizziness, stomach cramps, vomiting, respiratory distress, and cardiac arrest.

LILY OF THE VALLEY (Convallaria majalis

Other Names

May bells, Our Lady’s tears, Mary’s tears

About

If you are a Breaking Bad fan, you may have heard of lily of the valley’s toxicity. All parts of it are pretty poisonous. North America’s wild lily of the valley and false lily of the valley – both belonging to the Maianthmum genus – are not related to C. majalis.

Description

General: Lily of the valley is a perennial that grows in large colonies in wooded areas.  Its stem is around 15-30 tall. 
Leaves: One or two leaves, around 12-25 cm long and 3-8 cm wide, grow from near the base of the stem. Like all lilies, C. majalis has parallel veins.
Flower: 6-10 mm in diameter and form a bell shape with 6 white sepals (resembling petals in this case). Fragrant smell. 
Fruit: Orange-red berries, 5-7 mm in diameter

Range

Lily of the valley is native to temperate regions of Europe and Asia.  However, it is a common ornamental plant and can be found in gardens.  A variety (Convallaria majalis var. montana) grows wild in  Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. 

Symptoms and Toxicity

Ingesting any part of lily of the valley will cause abdominal pains, headache, nausea, pupil dilation, vomiting, irregular heart rate, skin rash, seizures, and cold and clammy skin. If enough is ingested, it can cause heart failure, coma and death. As little as two leaves can be lethal. Try as a might, I couldn’t find the lethal dosage for berries, but I think we’d best assume that it’s not many.

MOONSEED (Menispermum canadense)

Other Names

Canadian moonseed, common moonseed, yellow parilla.

About

Moonseed can be mistaken for grapes.  However, all parts of the moonseed are poisonous, particularly the fruit.  Like the baneberry, they taste bad, so if you find yourself eating a terrible grape, don’t – just don’t.  

Description

General: Woody climbing vine with grape-like leaves and grape-like berries. Can grow to over 4 m tall.
Leaves: Palmately lobed with 3-7 lobes and are around 5-10 cm in diameter. 
Flowers: Female and male flowers grow in separate clusters on either the same or different plants. Both are white, bell-shaped, and about 6 mm across. Grow in rounded branched clusters that are up to 13 cm long. Each flower has 3-5 sepals that are 2-4 mm and 5-10 petals shorter petals.
Berries: Berries are purple to black and around  1-1.5 cm in diameter (like many species of wild grapes). 

Distinguishing mooonseed from grapes: The most reliable difference in the actual fruit is the crescent-shaped seed. Moonseed also lacks the grape’s forked tendrils.  Grape leaves have toothed leaves, while those of Moonseed do not.  Moonseed leaves also have a smother surface than grape leaves.  For an explanation of tendril vs. twining vines see this description from Fine Gardening.

Range

North America from southern Canada to Florida.

Symptoms and Toxicity

Ingestions can cause convulsions, and in rare cases, death.  I couldn’t find any accessible, reliable resources that estimated lethal doses or how many one needs to eat to experience symptoms.

EUROPEAN SPINDLE (Euonymous europaeus

Other Names

Spindletree, European spindletree, European euonymus, common spindletree.

About

The European spindle is a large tree or small shrub growing on first edges and in disturbed areas and floodplains.  Pink capsules surround an orange seed.  It’s not technically a berry, but, like a few others on this list, I’ve included it because it looks like one.  Those bright colours make it a popular ornamental.  The leaves and bark are also poisonous.  

Description

General: Around 3-8 m tall, growing upright.
Leaves: Finely toothed, elliptical, 4-8 cm long, and arranged oppositely.
Flowers: Small, yellow-green, with four petals.
Berries: Four-lobed bright pink or purple capsule.  The capsule breaks open in the fall to reveal an orange seed.  Seeds are 12 mm in diameter.  

Range

 Native to most of Europe.  It’s been introduced throughout much of eastern US and Canada and has become invasive in some areas.  

Symptoms and Toxicity

Causes elevated heart rate, convulsions, diarrhea, hallucination, vomiting, and death.  Supposedly, thirty capsules are a fatal dose in adults, but I once again, I cannot find the primary source for such a claim.  Suffice to say, you shouldn’t try them.

HOLLY (Ilex aquifolium) 

Other Names

Christmas holly, common holly, common European holly, English holly

About

There are over 600 species of holly, most of which are poisonous, but I am focussing on English holly here because it is the one that poses the biggest risk.  The reason: Christmas.  With its evergreen leaves and bright red berries, holly is an iconic Christmas decoration.  It’s also a popular ornamental plant in gardens.   Since many of my readers are American, I should add that American holly (Ilex opaca) looks similar.  The US forest service states that it is not considered poisonous, but other sources disagree.  My guess is they are at least a little poisonous and you should not eat them, especially since they resemble their European cousin.

Description

General: The plants themselves are 7-10 m tall. Holly is dioecious, meaning it has male and female plants. 
Leaves: Distinct waxy, evergreen leaves with wavy edges, 3-8 cm long. Covered with sharp spines. 
Flowers: Small and white with four petals.  Male flowers are even smaller and pale yellow. Male flowers do not produce berries. 
Berries: The “berries” are actually drupes, but look a whole lot like berries.  They are red or yellow and grow in clusters.

Range

Native to Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.  Introduced to the West Coast of North America, as well as a small population in Massachusetts.  

Symptoms and Toxicity

The main toxin, ilicin causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sleepiness.  A lethal dose is estimated at  20 berries for children, yet once again, I can’t find the primary source of this statistic. Just don’t eat it.  

EUROPEAN MISTLETOE (Viscum album) 

Other Names

Common mistletoe, mistletoe

About

While mistletoes colloquially refers to European mistletoe, mistletoe refers to a number of parasitic plants that gain water and nutrients from trees.  Mistletoe is a popular player in ancient myth and legends, which eventually led to its use as a Christmas decoration and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.  Despite its toxicity, it has also traditionally been used as medicine, and current research suggests several potential uses including fighting hypertension, arthritis, and cancer.  American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) looks similar but is considerably less toxic (still, don’t eat it).

Description

General: Grows in a dense evergreen shrub up to 1 m by 1 m, most often in apple, polar, willow, linden, and hawthorn trees.
Leaves: Lance-shaped, leathery, approx. 5 cm long.
Berries: White with one seed, ripen from November to December. 

Range

Europe, North Africa, central Asia, and Japan.

Symptoms and Toxicity

Eating a small number of berries can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Larger amounts have caused seizures, hypotension, hepatitis, coma, and cardiac arrest. 

DAPHNE SPP. (focus on Daphne laureola)

Other Names

Spurge laurel

About

There are 75-90 species in the Daphne genus, all poisonous, but I will be focussing on Daphne laureola (spurge laurel) here since it is a popular ornamental and has made it onto the list of invasive plants in many areas of North America.  

Description

General: All Daphne spp. grow up to 1.5 m tall.
Leaves: Most Daphne species are lance-shaped, glossy, dark green, and grow in whorls. Spurge laurel is evergreen, but some Daphne plants are deciduous.
Flowers: Daphne spp. shave a variety of flower colours. Spurge laurel has yellow-green, growing in clusters.
Berries: Daphne spp. berries can be red, yellow or black. Spurge laurel berries are 8-12 mm long, black and juicy.  Other

Range

Spurge laurel is native to southwest Europe and has become invasive in western North America.  Other species of Daphne spp. are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

Symptoms and Toxicity

All parts of the Daphne plant are poisonous.  Ingestion can cause nausea, bloody diarhea thirst, swelling of the tongue, and coma. There is at least one recorded death on record after a child ate the berries. Contact with the sap can cause severe irritation and blistering.

AMERICAN POKEBERRY (Phytolacca americana)

Other Names

Pokeweed, American pokeweed, poke root, Virginia poke, pigeonberr,y inkberry, redweed, red ink plant, American nightshade, American spinach, bear’s grape, cancer-root, coakum, garget,  inkweed, pigeonberry, poke, common pokeberry, common pokeweed, pokeroot, red-ink plant, skoke berry.

About

Pokeberry is featured prominently in folklore and traditional medicine, and research is underway for applications in modern medicine.  It can also be used as a dye.  Some other plants in the genus Phytolacca are also known as pokeberry. All species of Phytolacca spp. are toxic.

Description

General:  Grows up to 7 m tall, but usually 1-3 m.  The stem is pinkish red and partially hollow.   
Leaves: 20-35 cm long, thin, lance-shaped. They are dark on top with lighter green and pink veins on undersides and produce an acrid smell when crushed.  
Flowers: White or pale green, sometimes with a pinkish or purplish tinge, growing in clusters.
Berries. Black. 6-11 mm in diameter growing on distinctive bright pink stalks.  Could be mistaken for grapes.  

Range

 Eastern US, midwest, southwest Canada and the Gulf coast.  Some populations in the western US.

Symptoms and Toxicity

Though the leaves are edible when cooked correctly, they, along with the rest of the plant, are poisonous when raw. Eating several berries can cause pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although rare, deaths have been recorded after ingestion of pokeberries.

BITTERSWEET NIGHTSHADE (Solanum dulcamara)

Other Names

Woody nightshade 

About

The genus Solanum includes many of our favourite veggies, including potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant.  All Solanum species contain some of the toxin solanine, though the edible parts of favourite vegetables have such small amounts that they are generally harmless to most people.  People with irritable bowel disease, however, might find that edible nightshades increase symptoms.  Although I’m focussing on S. dulcamara, non-cultivated species of the Solanum genus should be treated as poisonous.  Potato berries are also toxic. 

Description

General: Grows 1.3 m tall, vine-like, slightly woody, perennial.  
Leaves: Alternate, 3-8 cm long, egg-shaped to slightly heart-shaped. Can be slightly hairy. 
Flowers: Grow in clusters on short stalks coming from the stem. Five purple petals with a yellow cone in the centre.
Berries: Bright red, shiny, slightly oblong.     

Range

Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia.  Has been introduced to Australia, South America, New Zealand, and North America.  Preferesdeisturbed sites.  

Symptoms and Toxicity

In large doses, bittersweet nightshade berries can cause convulsions and death. It’s not as poisonous as other plants on this list, but I’ve added it because of its prevalence throughout the world. 

Too much leaf terminology? This article from Encylopedia Britannica has you covered: Leaf shape and arrangment terminology

References

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