If you know where to look, you can find food all around you in the wild, and there is hardly anything more appealing or convenient than berries.
In a survival situation or just padding your pantry when the opportunity presents itself gathering berries is a great way to quickly and easily boost your energy and add some nutrition to your diet.
But, as most of us already know, for every good berry there is a toxic one that could make you sick, or even kill you. So what color berries can you eat safely?
There is no universally safe or unsafe color of berry. Just because a berry is blue or black doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat, and just because a berry is red or white doesn’t mean it’s poisonous. The only way to know for sure if a berry is safe to eat is to be familiar with the plant it came from.
Eating wild, unknown berries according to any color convention is a great way to wind up crippled with stomach-churning illness, or just dead.
This is not to scare you from sourcing wild berries for any reason, but you must know what you are doing. The rest of this article can help you with that.
Edible Berries Come in a Variety of Colors
The good news, or perhaps the bad news depending on your perspective, is that edible berries come in all kinds of colors: black, blue, brown, green, purple, red, white, and yellow.
While it’s easy to find berries of just about any color in the supermarket, you’re likely to only find a handful of colors in the wild.
Some of the most common edible wild berries are blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries, elderberries, and strawberries.
Dangerously Toxic Berries Come in All Colors, Too
But of course, on the flip side, that above factoid means that harmful berries come in all colors, too.
Yew, holly, mistletoe, and pokeweed berries run the gamut of colors and range from unpleasantly toxic to shockingly lethal. Some even look a lot like the safe and nutritious berries above. No pressure, eh?
So, if you can’t rely on color to determine whether a berry is safe to eat, what can you do?
Knowing Your Berry Bushes Can Save Your Life
The best thing you can do to ensure you’re only eating safe berries is to learn to identify the plants they grow on.
This might seem like a daunting task, but once you get familiar with a few common edible berry-bearing plants it will become second nature.
A great place to start if you are serious is a good field guide. A better way to learn is with the tutelage of a skilled expert in actual field conditions.
No matter where you live, there will be both edible and harmful berries out in the world.
Generally, you don’t need to learn every berry-bearing plant there is (though that is a good goal!) in order to be reasonably prepared for foraging.
Rather, you should focus on becoming familiar with the most common edible berry-bearing plants in your area so that you can identify them when you see them.
Learn the plants in your “backyard” like the back of your hand, and then branch out. As you will see in the following sections, you won’t be able to depend on color alone!
Search for These 5 Safe Berries
1. Wild Blueberries
Color: Indigo blue to glossy purple-black. Unripe berries are green.
Blueberries are one of the most popular berries in the world, and are commonly cultivated. Tasty, nutritious, and easy to find, consider yourself lucky if you come across some in the wild.
In North America, blueberries grow in the wild from Alaska all the way down to Florida.
Blueberries grow on low-lying shrubs with small, oval leaves. The berries hang in clusters and are quite small, only about 1/2 an inch in diameter.
Color: Varies widely. Can be black, blue-black, purple, or red.
Mulberries are the fruit of several species of deciduous trees in the genus Morus. They’re closely related to figs and breadfruit.
Mulberries are native to warm temperate and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
The berries grow in clusters, look very much like irregular raspberries and darken as they ripen.
Color: Varies from deep purple to green-bronze.
Muscadines are a species of grape native to the southeastern United States. Also known as scuppernongs, muscadines grow on vines and can be found in wooded areas, along fences, and in abandoned fields.
The berries are large, oval-shaped, and have a thick skin. They’re very juicy and nutritious, but they have an odd musky-sweet flavor.
Color: Bright purple to deep, glossy black.
Elderberries are the fruit of various species of elderberry trees in the genus Sambucus. These trees are native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
The berries grow in large, dense drooping clusters and have a slightly flattened shape. They’re very tart and are often used to make pies, jams, and wines.
Notably, elderberries are slightly toxic unless cooked. Eaten raw and in abundance, they can cause serious indigestion.
Color: Black, purple or red.
Chokeberries are the fruit of various species of deciduous shrubs in the genus Aronia. These shrubs are native to swamp and wetland regions of North America.
Berries are small, usually growing in row-like clusters with distinct, thin stems. Tangy, with a tart, astringent flavor.
Watch Out for These 4 Harmful Berries
1. Yew Berries
Color: Ruby red.
The most hideously toxic plant on this list, all parts of the yew are poisonous. Looking very much like a Christmas tree, whether it is found in a tree or shrub form the entire plant contains a compound called taxine, which is a deadly cardiac poison.
Just a few berries can cause heart arrhythmia and a few more will kill an adult human.
2. Holly berries
Color: Glossy red to maroon.
Likely responsible for more accidental poisonings of children and pets than any other, thanks to its traditional use as an ornamental plant, holly berry toxin can cause a wide range of symptoms.
The berries will cause stomach pain and vomiting, while larger doses can cause drowsiness, confusion, and even coma.
The toxin is saponin, which is also found in various other plants such as soapwort and larkspur.
3. Virginia Creeper Berries
Color: Purple to glossy black.
A beautiful crawling, creeping plant that is often found in wooded areas when it isn’t growing up fences, trellises, and homes.
The Virginia creeper produces lovely little flowers and powerfully toxic berries that can shred your kidneys. It only takes a few, so you cannot risk eating these by mistake!
4. Mistletoe Berries
Another beautiful holiday favorite, mistletoe plants can be mildly or extremely toxic depending on the species. All contain phoratoxin and toxalbumin, which can cause gastrointestinal upset and vomiting.
In larger doses it can cause difficulty breathing, seizures, and coma. The white berries look appealing but are highly distinctive. Learn and avoid it!
If in Doubt, Avoid it. If you Can’t Avoid it, Use this Test
If you are truly out of options when it comes to identifying a wild berry, you don’t need to just roll the dice and pray. Instead, use the universal edibility test.
It is tedious, deliberate, and slow, which is why it allows you to experiment with an unknown berry without dying. Follow these steps to administer the test:
The first step is to smell the berries carefully for a moment. Any strange odor or an extraordinarily unpleasant one means you should pass on eating it.
The next stage is to rub the intact berry across the skin of your inner wrist or elbow for about a minute. Then wait.
If you get any burning, numbness, itching, or other skin discomfort definitely don’t eat the berry.
If the first two steps pass, repeat the rubbing test by applying a small amount of juice from the berry to your skin. Pay attention for any changes in sensation.
After 30 minutes, rub the intact berry on your lips, then wait. If nothing happens, rub a little juice from the berry on your lips. Wait another 30 minutes.
Now, finally, take a minuscule bite of the berry and let it sit in your mouth for 10 to 15 minutes. If the berries begin to taste bad, metallic, or soap-like, spit it out and rinse your mouth thoroughly.
Do not eat any more under any circumstances! The final step is to take a tiny bite and swallow.
Wait a few hours to see if anything bad happens. After a few hours with no ill effects, you can declare the berries safe.
The complexity and tediousness of this test should motivate you to learn your berries!
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.