Anytime one is in a wilderness survival situation bolstering your calorie intake by taking advantage of natural food sources is always a good idea. Depending upon your region and the current climate one of the best and not to mention tastiest gatherable foods found in nature are berries. But like so many things found in the wilderness not all berries are safe to eat, and some contain deadly toxins.
So, what colors of berries should you eat? As it turns out, there is no color of berry found in nature that is 100% safe to eat all the time. Typical colors of common berries (including yellow, white, red, purple and black) are all present in species that are edible and also present in species that are inedible, or even dangerous. There is no rule of thumb or guideline that you can bet your life on! Good ones include elderberries and mulberries; bad ones include pokeweed and missletoe.
Naturally, this is a nuanced topic and one you would be wise to learn more about. It is possible to make an educated guess that is not likely to have lethal consequences, though there is much more to talk about before you can do that. Keep reading to learn more.
Looks Good, Tastes Good, Safe… Right?
When consulting advice about which wild berries are edible, you will encounter all kinds of rules of thumb intended to help keep you safe by preventing you from making a potentially deadly mistake.
Much of the time, these rules often factor in percentages about which color berries are most often safe, or most often dangerous.
The exact figures vary, but typically sound something like this: “the majority of black and blue berries are safe to eat; approximately half of red berries are poisonous; almost all white and yellow berries are dangerous.”
If it sounds like there was a ton of approximating and a lot of wholly unscientific generalizations going on, you are quite correct!
Still, knowing the general distribution of edible versus toxic berries in a given class or color is helpful, isn’t it? Not really.
Would you want to roll the dice on a literal 50/50 chance that a berry you’re going to eat will poison you in a survival situation where you are already behind the eight ball, so to speak? That’s what you’ll get if you want to start chowing down on unknown red-colored berries.
And what are your chances with blue or black berries? How much is the majority? Is that the majority of the black or blue berries in your state, in your region, in your country or in the world? Do those percentages change depending on where you are? Just what are your chances?
One in ten, one in six, one in five or one in three? Does that change your assessment? Would you gamble your life even on a one in ten chance? That’s what you might in fact be doing if you follow this old and entirely non-useful advice.
You cannot even necessarily rely on your own sense of taste to keep you safe. Plenty of highly toxic berries don’t necessarily taste awful. They might taste somewhere between too tart and astringent to even pleasantly sweet.
On the flip side, some edible, nutritious berries don’t taste that great, and some even taste distinctly strange with a musky or vaguely metallic flavor.
There is No Substitute for Knowing
Simply stated, there is no substitute for genuine expert knowledge of what kind of plant and what kind of berry you are looking at and that is because these course rules of thumb are so coarse and have so many exceptions as to be basically useless in anything but the most desperate, dire circumstances imaginable.
You have to know if you are looking at entirely edible (if tart) chokeberries, or distinctly unpalatable and potentially toxic Virginia creeper berries. You must be able to distinguish the Huckleberry from pokeweed berries and muscadines from mistletoe.
Screwing up in any comparison, or just taking a chance on random berries you find growing could see you fall grievously ill at best or even perish at worst.
Even the generally reliable and highly methodical field edibility tests when dealing with an unknown or suspect berry or other plant can fail you because certain toxic compounds do not exhibit any hazardous effects until hours after ingestion. This is one of those times where you have to know what you are doing and exactly what kind of plant and berry you are dealing with.
A considerable amount of time, experience and training in the field can furnish you with this knowledge, but for those lacking in lived experience a comprehensive, detailed and full color field guide can help you distinguish edible from poisonous plants, including their fruit.
5 Wild Berries You Should Eat and 5 You Should Avoid
If you are serious about prepping and especially if you habitually visit pristine wilderness areas or plan on bugging out into the deep country, you probably cannot afford to opt out of learning which plants and berries are edible and which aren’t. You might say you are just going to abstain from eating berries entirely, but if you do that you’ll be missing out on one of the tastiest and the most nutritious and vitamin packed wild food sources available to you.
All kinds of wild berries are absolutely delicious, contain all sorts of essential vitamins and many other helpful compounds that promote tissue and organ health and even improve brain health and mental function. Many berries are labeled superfoods for a reason, and the good ones are ripe and ready for the picking if you know what you’re looking for.
In the remainder of this article we will share with you five wild berries that you should be looking for and eating when out in nature and five that only look appetizing but you should definitely avoid. In the latter category the ill effects of consumption range from diarrhea and nausea to organ failure and death. Time to brush up on that horticultural knowledge, eh?
5 Good Berries
The charmingly named huckleberry is native to North America, and looks very much like a blueberry with a typical very dark blue to purplish color and a plump, round firmness. Note that some huckleberries may be red or black in color.
Huckleberries at peak freshness are tart but fairly sweet and are greatly beloved as an ingredient in all kinds of toppings, desserts and beverages. They are also a nutritional powerhouse that you should partake of whenever you can.
But do take care, because huckleberries are a common blueberry-lookalike that can easily resemble other blue or black berries that you should not eat.
Mulberries are a clustering berry typically found growing and subtropical regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres. With more than a passing resemblance to large, misshapen raspberries, these berries are sweet, juicy and excellent in pie filling, preserves and in syrups.
They are also a popular component of herbal teas, positively jam-packed with vitamins B, C among others as well as magnesium and potassium. More impressively, mulberries are also an excellent natural source of iron.
An oddball, muscadines are a berry that sprouts on a grapevine species common to North America, and in color can range anywhere from black to plum to a brownish, bronze color.
Muscadines are notable for extraordinarily high amounts of vitamin B2 and solid amounts of fiber, with even a small serving providing nearly a fifth of your recommended daily intake.
Muscadines are reported to taste a little different, with flesh that is closer to that of a plum then the grapes they resemble and are also typically possessed of a sweet but vaguely musky flavor. How weird!
This is not going to be the favorite of everyone, but they are undeniably a great survival food if you can find them.
These wetland and swamp growing berries are endemic only to the eastern regions of North America. Depending upon the species they may be black, red or purple.
They are often quite tart but usually have some sweetness to them and are just as good fresh as they are made into a variety of dishes, including jams or jellies, juices and even ice cream or sherbet. These tangy berries are notable for being extremely high in antioxidants including flavonols and anthrocyanins.
Your father might not smell of elderberries, but this berry is anything but mythical. Elderberries are small, round dark purple- or black-colored berries that grow in clusters on vine-like tendrils.
This is another superfood berry that is packed with vitamins and immune system boosting antioxidants, but they come with a catch.
First, they are typically very tart and tangy, liable to screw your eyes shut, and they also contain a certain alkaloid compound that may cause nausea when it builds up in your body and is potentially mildly toxic if you gorge on them.
This alkaloid is deactivated when elderberries are cooked, and so these berries are typically reserved for inclusion in dishes that require cooked ingredients.
5 Bad Berries
A berry that is purple, nearly black and a common food source for birds of various kinds and certain mammals. Unfortunately, very few mammals can eat pokeweed berries more than once as they are decidedly poisonous to people, pets and livestock.
Only certain parts of the plant are edible at all as they all contain the toxin, with the roots being particularly dangerous. As the plant grows, more mature toxin levels increase and the juice from the berries is capable of being absorbed through the skin. Death usually results from respiratory paralysis.
This greatly beloved holiday vegetation is perfect for smooching under, but you should not smooch or eat the plant itself, or its appetizing looking white berries!
This plant is actually a form of parasite that lives on other plants, particularly trees, and though that conversation is the subject of another article what is important for this one is that this plant varies widely in toxicity according to what species it is, and though usually not fatal ingesting, the leaves or the berries can result in vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, seizures or even cardiac arrest.
The effects are particularly pronounced and sometimes deadly if someone is foolish enough to make a tea from the berries.
Another gorgeous holiday plant and one with equally gorgeous and equally appetizing looking bright red berries.
Particularly a nuisance to children and certain mammals who cannot seem to resist the enticing, perfectly red berries, they nonetheless contain a battery of toxins and eating merely a couple of handfuls can prove fatal to children and the infirm.
Expect vomiting, stomach and intestinal pain, diarrhea and nausea. A common threat to domestic and wild animals alike.
Every part of this evergreen conifer tree is poisonous, significantly so, except the fleshy parts of the berries surrounding the seeds in certain species. The berries themselves often look highly appealing, and very much like an olive, though typically red in color.
Nonetheless, you should not ever try to salvage anything edible from these impressive trees as the toxins required to make an adult morally ill are comparatively small and rapidly absorbed upon ingestion.
These toxins persist even after cooking or drying, and these trees are well known killers of domesticated animals as well as wild animals.
❌ Virginia Creeper
This climbing vine often produces attractive flowers and small, hard black to purple berries. They contain high amounts of oxalic acid that can inflict terrible kidney damage on humans and other mammals though birds are, once again unaffected.
The vine is entirely common and easily mistaken for other edible berries throughout much of North America and especially the American South and Tidewater region. It only takes a handful of berries to cause irreversible kidney damage.
There is no hard and fast rule for determining the edibility of varies based on color alone. There are dangerous examples of berries in every color, and just as many examples of edible, nutritious berries in every color.
The only surefire, reliable way to determine which berries are edible is by attaining expert knowledge of the plant in question. Mistakenly eating a toxic berry can result in significant illness or even death.