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When you think about foraging, one of the first types of food that might come to mind are berries. There are certainly many different kinds but knowing what to pick could be the difference between a tasty feast and a trip to ER!
Never pick anything that you are not absolutely certain of its identification. If you’re in any way unsure, it is best to leave it alone as it could be deadly poisonous.
Blueberry (Cyanococcus spp.)
Blueberries can be found growing in eastern and northern parts of the United States and are easily identifiable by their thornless canes that come straight out of the soil. They thrive in places close to water, and there are several varieties, with the most common being the highbush blueberry.
These berries have a sweet taste and can be eaten raw. However, it is worth keeping in mind that they have a similar appearance to some toxic berries, so you should make 100% sure that you know what you’re picking.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberries are very versatile and can be used in everything from pies to jellies, teas to wines, and much more. These plants also have edible flowers that are perfect for making cordial for a hot summer’s day. You’ll find these berries all over the US right from the Rocky Mountains all the way down to Mexico!
When you can harvest these berries will largely depend on the climate, but usually, they’ll come out between June and September. You should be very careful when harvesting elderberries as some parts of the plant including the roots, leaf stems, flower roots, and wood are toxic. Also, keep in mind that this can look similar to poisonous water hemlock.
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria spp.)
Wild strawberries tend to be much smaller than cultivated ones, but they’re just as sweet and delicious. Only the berries are edible and are bursting with vitamins but don’t forage any other part of the plant.
What’s great about wild strawberries is that you can eat them raw or you can use them to make jam, although you will need quite a yield for this.
Tell wild strawberries apart from other plants by spotting the small berries and large green leaves. You’ll find these plants growing all over the country but particularly along lawn edges and beaches.
Wild Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
Wild raspberries are tasty, but you’ll find that the plants don’t yield very many berries, so they’re better as a passing snack than they are for gathering. They can be eaten raw and there aren’t any dangers associated with them.
You can identify these plants thanks to the presence of red thorns along the stem and twisting branches. They grow in most parts of the US apart from southern states like Texas, Kansas, and Florida.
Raspberry leaves can be gathered in abundance to make wild tea, but it’s best to do this before the plant flowers.
Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)
Cloudberries are not common in all parts of the US, being native to countries like Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia. However, you will find them in northern states like Alaska, Maine, and New York right up into Canada. There is only one berry per plant, and it’ll be a pinkish/red when it’s ripe. Unripe berries are a darker red.
The fresh taste of the cloudberry can be enjoyed raw, but they can also be used to make delicious jelly and jams. It’s possible to eat the flowers of the cloudberry plant, and they have excellent antioxidant properties.
While the cloudberry isn’t dangerous itself, it can look like other toxic berries so you should be mindful when collecting them.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
It may surprise you to learn that there are around 600 species of blackberry and raspberry, but in the US, you’ll normally find the common blackberry, which grows everywhere. There is also the Himalayan blackberry which is prevalent along the west coast of the USA.
Blackberries can be identified from their brambly appearance, and the berries are a rich blackish-purple when they are ripe. They can be eaten raw or used to make pies and desserts.
They’re ready for harvest in mid to late summer, and if you want something a little different, why not use the leaves to make a wild tea? Young leaves can be eaten raw but as they get older, it’s best to blanch them first.
Gooseberry (Ribes spp.)
You will find gooseberries growing in slightly cooler climates and the best time of year to collect them is when they start appearing in the early fall. You might want to be careful when foraging gooseberries, however, since these are thorny plants. The edible berries range from green to red in color and the leaves don’t look all that dissimilar to maple leaves, so they’re not hard to spot.
Gooseberries have quite a tart taste, although some varieties are much sweeter. They’re incredibly versatile being used to make jams, wines, and syrups. But if you prefer, you can eat them directly from the plant. Just be mindful that some gooseberries have spikes, so you will need to boil these and mash them before eating.
Mulberry (Morus spp.)
Mulberries look rather similar to blackberries in color and shape, and you will find them growing in clusters. Typically, they’re found in the eastern parts of the United States, and it’s only the red mulberry tree that is native to this country. Look out for mulberries during the spring and summer months when they will be a deep red or purple color.
These edible berries are ideal for making wild tea and cordial as well as including in pies and other desserts. What’s great is that they’re bursting with Vitamins B and C as well as nutrients like potassium and magnesium.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Since there are hundreds of hawthorn varieties, identifying the plant can be a little tricky. Generally speaking, you’ll notice oval leaves with serrated margins that grow on either a tree or a shrub. The plants have white flowers and are thorny, so be sure to take some gloves when foraging.
Not only are the berries of the hawthorn edible but the leaves are too. The leaves are ideal in a salad while the berries can be used in jams and jellies. Just be sure not to eat them raw as they are very scratchy.
You’ll harvest the berries in fall, whereas the leaves are better collected when they are young in the spring. Hawthorn isn’t native to North America but is cultivated in many areas and can be found in woodlands and hedgerows.
Huckleberry (Vaccinium & Gaylussacia spp.)
You’ll sometimes hear people calling this the bilberry or the whortleberry, but they’re referring to the same thing. Huckleberries are often confused with blueberries, but they are not the same thing. They can be found growing on high and low shrubs in the wilderness high above sea level.
Due to their unusual location, foragers need to be prepared to go a little further than usual, but at the start of summer, these berries can be found in all parts of the USA and right up into Canada as far as British Columbia.
Huckleberries have a slightly sour taste, but make sure to only pick them when they’re fully ripe. You’ll be able to tell this as they will be dull instead of shiny, and the color will be much deeper. Once you’ve got your harvest, you can use these versatile berries for everything from jams and preserves to wines and sauces. The berries can be eaten raw, but they will be quite tart.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
The black cherry tree is native to North America, and while they do grow all over the country, there is a significant popularity in Texas. You can easily identify the trees thanks to horizontal lenticels on the bark as well as the serrated leaves.
It’s important to remember that all parts of the plant apart from the fleshy part of the fruit are toxic and contain hydrogen cyanide. You can pick the berries and eat them directly from the tree, but they can be bitter, so many people prefer to cook them and use them in pies.
The black cherry tree thrives in wooded areas and forest as well as in hedgerows. The berries are ready to pick in midsummer around August.
Crab Apples (Malus spp.)
Crab apples are widely available in zones 4 to 8 in the USA and you’ll recognize them as smaller than average apples that are slightly bitter in taste. For this reason, foragers will usually use them to make jams and jellies.
While states like Hawaii, Idaho, Arizona, and North Dakota don’t have crab apple trees, these small trees can be found everywhere else along roads, in parks, in public spaces, and more remote areas and woodlands. The trees grow no higher than 30 feet and feature oval leaves and scaly bark. On older trees, there may be thorns, so be careful when foraging.
While the crab apples will be ripe in fall, most people swear by picking them in winter as the cooler temperatures make for a sweeter taste.
Red Currants (Ribes rubrum)
You probably won’t want to eat red currants straight from the tree. While they won’t do you any harm raw, they’re filled with seeds and are often quite tart. However, they’re the ideal berry for making jams, so collect them in large quantities where you can.
These plants are not very tall, often not exceeding six feet. They feature alternate leaves that look similar to maple leaves. You’ll also notice that the leaves have a potent smell when crushed, and this scent varies between species.
You’ll be able to pick the bright red, almost see-through berries from the beginning of summer. They’re high in Vitamin C, and the best place to find them is near bodies of water where the soil is moist.
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
The autumn olive can be found across central and southern United States, and while it is an invasive species, it’s great for foragers. The berries are incredibly abundant, and that’s good news since they’re the only edible part of the plant for humans. They can be used in both sweet and savory dishes as well as for preserves such as fruit leather.
These plants yield berries at a time of year when there isn’t much else to forage due to their incredibly hardy nature. Plus, they’re full of vitamins A, C, and E, so they’re very nutritious.
The plants can grow relatively tall up to 18 feet as well as growing as wide as 30 feet. They feature alternate oval-shaped leaves and small bright red berries, and throughout spring, you’ll be able to identify them thanks to their smell that’s very similar to lilies.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Usually referred to as a berry, junipers are actually more closely related to the pine cone. They’re small, around the size of a peppercorn, and are blue in color. There are two main types of juniper that yield berries you can forage. The common juniper has sharp-tasting berries and the red juniper whose fruits are milder.
In any case, these berries are used for flavor rather than a food in their own right. Add them to dishes for a slightly spicy kick. These berries are also used to flavor gin, so are great if you want to try home brewing.
You’ll find junipers growing pretty much everywhere in the northern hemisphere and you can tell them not only by their blue berries but by the lack of a central trunk. Also, look for flaky bark and leaves that are green or silver in color.
Generally speaking, these are safe to eat but if taken in large quantities, junipers may cause convulsions and kidney problems.
Barberry (Berberis spp.)
Barberries can be harvested from the end of summer through into fall and what’s great is that they are common all around the world apart from Australia and Antarctica. They grow in all sorts of places including hedgerows, parks, and in wasteland.
The small spoon-shaped leaves make this plant easy to identify. Note that they may be green or red in color. They also have orange, red, or yellow flowers with six petals and shiny, oblong red fruit. They cannot be easily confused with anything else.
The berries are often used to make a citrusy-tasting drink, but they can be eaten raw from the bush. That said, a lot of people prefer to cook them, and don’t forget that you can use the leaves to add flavor to dishes.
Saskatoon (Amelanchier spp.)
These shrubs are native to North America and are incredibly nutritious, containing high levels of riboflavin which can protect against certain diseases like Parkinson’s as well as boost energy levels. The edible berries are versatile and can be used in everything from cider to cereal, wine to pies, and even eaten raw as a sweet treat.
Pick the saskatoon out from other plants by looking for grey bark and reddish/purple berries. The leaves are slightly woolly when they’re young, and the tree also produces white flowers.
You’ll find them growing all over the US, particularly in wooded areas, along roadsides, and near swamps. Picking them in summer when they’re fully ripe is the best option.
Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
You can start foraging for the nannyberry at the end of summer and into early fall. They have a deep purple hue but before this, the plant undergoes a wonderful transformation. It begins with a woody appendage that looks like a bird’s head which then sprouts a leafy shoot followed by tiny white/yellow flowers.
Natively, they grow in the northeastern and northern central parts of the US, but they’ve been planted all over and can be found outside buildings, shopping malls, and other public places.
You can eat the berries directly from the tree, although many people like to cook them and include them in desserts. It’s also worth noting that the bark is often used for medicinal purposes.
Chokeberry (Aronia spp.)
Chokeberries ripen in the fall, and the larger the berry, the sweeter the taste. While you can eat them raw, most people turn them into juices, ice creams, teas, or jams. They are incredibly beneficial to your health, helping to prevent certain cancers and liver disease as well as boosting your cardio health! Being packed with vitamin K, they’re particularly good for your bone health.
Not only this, but these berries, native to eastern North America, that are often found in woodlands and swamps are high in antioxidants. You can tell them apart from other plants as the shrubs don’t usually grow higher than seven feet and have alternate leaves and small five-petalled flowers.
Keep in mind that the seeds are toxic. Most people simply spit them out when eating the fruit raw as the seeds are very small and otherwise difficult to remove.
Rowan Berry (Sorbus spp.)
During the later part of summer and into fall, bright red rowan berries seem to be everywhere. They can be found in both rural and urban areas, particularly in wooded areas. However, we wouldn’t suggest eating them straight from the tree as they don’t taste too good. Instead, cook them to improve the flavor or use them to make a jelly or jam.
There are two varieties of the mountain ash on which rowan berries grow. The American variety is found in eastern North America and through into Canada as far as Nova Scotia. They prefer to grow in an elevated location.
The berries have great medicinal value being an astringent and ideal for curing constipation. Moreover, they’re bursting with vitamins.
Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
The Oregon grape comes from a bush from the barberry family, and while it is native to Oregon, as its name suggests, it can also be found across many of the other western states.
You won’t have too many problems identifying Oregon grapes as the leaves are very similar in appearance to that of the holly plant. You’ll find these plants in woodlands, although the high variety is often used as a landscaping plant.
You’ll be able to forage for Oregon grapes throughout the summer between June and August. While the berries are quite tart, they won’t do you any harm. Turning these berries into a juice for making jellies is a common use, but you can also make sherbets and sorbets too. It is possible to eat these high in Vitamin C berries raw, but we’d suggest adding a little honey or sugar.
Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
The lingonberry often features in Scandinavian cuisine, but it’s also a great food for foraging. Once you collect your harvest, these berries are perfect for making sauces and syrups to add to either sweet or savory dishes, particularly pancakes. If you prefer, you can dehydrate them and eat them as a snack on their own.
These berries are packed with nutrients and vitamins, including iron, vitamins A and C, and calcium. What’s more, they have excellent antioxidant properties. You’ll find them growing on their low-lying bushes throughout northern parts of North America, including Canada and Alaska.
In Russian culture, lingonberries are used for their laxative effect, so perhaps don’t eat too many at once.
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Sea buckthorn berries are renowned for their incredible nutritional value and are often considered a wild superfood. It’s worth keeping in mind that you’ll have to ‘sing for your supper’ so to speak as getting the berries off the tree comes with something of a battle with its thorns. So take hand and arm protection!
The sea buckthorn tree is one of the less common on this list, but if you live in a coastal area, you may be in luck. The leaves look very similar to rosemary and are silver/green in color. You’ll also be able to identify this tree thanks to the bright orange berries.
You can use the seaberries to make oils and juices as well as jams, and they are high in vitamin C. To forage these berries, you’ll need to head out at the end of summer through into early fall. The berries are generally safe but may not be suitable for people with bleeding disorders.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
Salmonberries come from a species of rose known as the rubus spectabilis and are native to North America. You’ll typically find them growing in coastal regions, particularly along the shore and in forests.
These berries are quite easy to identify as they are very similar in appearance to the blackberry. The only real difference is the color; salmonberries have an orange to yellow hue. If you’re out walking and come across salmonberries, you can eat them raw, although they don’t have a very vibrant taste.
For this reason, these berries are normally used with others to make desserts, jams, juices, and even alcoholic drinks. The young shoots can be eaten raw, but you may also cook them in the same way as asparagus.
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
The thimbleberry has a light flavor, and while many people confuse them with raspberries, they are not the same. You will find them growing along the western part of the USA, from Alaska down to California.
The great thing about them is that they grow on a thornless bush, so they’re a lot easier to forage than some similar species. You’ll find them along roadsides and in woodlands, but be aware that the berries do not last long after harvesting; we’re talking hours, so you’ll need to eat them right away. Fortunately, they can be eaten raw.
You might also turn them into a jelly or jam, so get out there in the middle of summer, around July and August, and you’ll get a very good harvest. This is also a good time to forage the leaves of this plant which can be used to make wild tea that’s known to soothe digestive upset.
Black Raspberries (Rubus occidentalis)
Not to be confused with blackberries, black raspberries can be found growing all over the eastern parts of the United States. They grow on a medium-sized shrub, and the berries are sweet with a tangy hit. However, it’s worth remembering that the shrubs are incredibly thorny, so you’ll have your work cut out when foraging.
You may find these shrubs growing beneath walnut trees, and the berries can be eaten raw or frozen for use down the line. They’re very versatile and make a great addition to pies and desserts as well as for use in jams and syrups.
Poisonous Berries You Should Avoid
While foraging for berries, it is essential to understand that not all berries are edible. In fact, some are incredibly toxic and can cause serious health problems and in some cases, death. Therefore, it is vital that all foragers are aware of certain berries that should be avoided.
Below we detail some of the most common but keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you cannot identify a berry with 100% confidence, leave it alone.
Holly (Ilex spp.)
Holly berries contain toxins known as saponins as well as a poison called theobromine. These toxins can cause gastrointestinal upset, including symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea.
The holly bush grows in the southern parts of the United States between Florida and Pennsylvania. While the leaves are used as a holiday decoration, the berries should be left well alone.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum & Viscum album)
Eating any part of the mistletoe plant will cause a reaction owing to the presence of viscotoxins, so it’s one that should be left well alone. That said, the berries are not as toxic as the leaves which may cause symptoms such as diarrhea, cramping, and blurred vision.
A parasitic plant, misletoe can be found growing all over the United States. Common mistletoe is normally distributed between Florida and New Jersey and down to Texas, while dwarf mistletoe grows all the way up to Canada.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Ivy grows all over the United States, and you’ll typically find it in moist soils and a variety of sunlight conditions. The plant is severely toxic to animals, and the berries are poisonous to humans, and this applies to all varieties of ivy.
These berries contain oxalates that cause severe swelling. The condition is treatable and hardly ever fatal but certainly unpleasant. Fortunately, the berries are so bitter that you’d be unlikely to eat enough to suffer any ill effects.
Yew (Taxus baccata)
It is not the berries of the yew tree that cause problems for humans but the seeds found inside of them. This is due to the presence of taxanes which can cause a range of symptoms. In the mildest of poisoning cases, you may suffer from a headache and blue lips, whereas more severe cases result in breathing difficulties, irregular heartbeat, and even coma.
The yew tree is widespread across North America, running from Alaska down to California, so it is a very common tree.
Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum)
Jerusalem cherries are often grown as an ornamental plant, and you’ll find many of them on sale around the holiday season. Often kept as a houseplant, the brightly colored berries can be tempting for young children.
However, these berries contain a substance called solanocapsine, and this can result in vomiting and other digestive symptoms as well as things like an irregular heartbeat and headaches. The younger the berries, the more poison they contain so it’s best to keep them well out of reach.
Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum)
Commonly referred to as St John’s Wort, this plant can be taken by humans in small amounts and is often used as a salad. However, too much can cause stomach upset and dizziness. Most notably, this plant and all of its parts are highly toxic to dogs, so if you’re taking your pets out foraging, it’s worth keeping them away from this one.
It can cause a digestive upset, as well as skin blistering, loss of appetite, and in the worst cases, convulsions. This is because the plant contains a toxin called hypericin to which dogs are very sensitive. The plant grows across most of the US but is particularly abundant in Florida and can be found around ponds, lakes, and shorelines.
White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)
This plant is sometimes called doll’s eyes, owing to the appearance of the berries. The whole plant is toxic, but the berries are particularly so. While the exact toxins contained within the plant are yet to be discovered, effects include slowing down the heart, which can result in cardiac arrest.
You will find white baneberry in Canada as well as the Eastern parts of the US and the Midwest. Since they’re a low grower, children will often pick them without realising the dangers.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
You may hear this plant being called woodbine or thicket creeper, and it has extremely high toxicity levels because of the presence of calcium oxalate. Just a small amount of this toxin can be fatal, and yet this is a very common plant in the US.
All parts of the Virginia creeper are toxic, and you’ll find this native plant growing almost everywhere, especially in eastern parts of the country as well as up into Canada.
Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
The bittersweet nightshade is not native to the USA, but it has naturalized here and can now be found growing in every part of the country. The only places you won’t find it are in Hawaii and Alaska.
The plant is not quite as poisonous as some of its relatives such as belladonna, but it does contain enough of the toxin solanine to kill children and pets. While all parts of the plant are dangerous, the berries contain the most toxins.
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
You may hear this plant being called belladonna, and while it is in the same family as tomato and chili plants, it is incredibly toxic. This is because the plant contains tropane alkaloids which can cause an array of symptoms, including a dry mouth, dizziness, headache, irregular heartbeat, and hallucinations. In the worst cases, eating just a few berries can cause death.
The plant is not native to the USA but was introduced here from Europe and Asia and now grows in some northeastern states as well as down the west coast.
Lilly of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)
While often used for its beautiful scent and as a garden plant, lily of the valley is incredibly toxic. While the whole plant is poisonous, the berries are the most toxic and can cause vomiting, fatigue, stomach pain, and confusion among other things. Shockingly, there are thought to be around 38 toxins in the plant some of which can cause heart attacks.
This plant can be found in all but two of the states and is very common along the eastern part of the country.
Pokeweed Berry (Phytolacca americana)
While more common in the eastern half of the US, pokeweed does grow in some western areas. All parts of the plant including the berries, leaves, stem, and roots are toxic thanks to a poison called phytolaccatoxin which can cause gastrointestinal upset.
However, some people consider the plants to be edible when eaten in small amounts, and the leaves may lose toxicity when cooked. That said, it’s better to err on the side of caution and stick to berries that you know are safe.
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
While native to Europe, the spindle is found in some eastern parts of the United States. It’s quite often used as an ornamental plant, owing to its bright berries and naturally beautiful appearance. However, the berries contain a variety of toxins, including evomonoside, evobioside, evonoside, and glycosides.
You might not notice symptoms right away, as they usually take up to 12-18 hours to start. In less severe cases, you may experience gastrointestinal symptoms, whereas more serious cases may lead to kidney failure and could ultimately be fatal.