Wild Food School ®

Berried... or Buried!

[The following text on edible and non-edible wild berries (and now expanded) first appeared as an article in Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine towards the end of 2007. With Christmas approaching it seemed appropriate to focus on some of the berries (given the holly and mistletoe season), that you are likely to find in our hedgerows and countryside. The original article and this update are NOT designed as a comprehensive guide to commonly found berries, and there are MANY more out there which are not covered, so do be careful !]


In my travels teaching about wild foods I occasionally come across folks who ask about various 'yardsticks' for identifying poisonous and non-poisonous berries. For example: 'that red berries are okay to eat but black ones not', and vice versa. When I hear such quackish fiction a little shiver runs through me and I wonder if the originators of such buffoonish rules of thumb are still alive or buried six feet under, although it must be said that Rasputin was apparently pretty resilient to cyanide - for a while at least. So I thought, as we head into the season of festive cheer and holly-drenched sitting rooms, it might be worth reviewing some of the berries that foragers may encounter on our UK shores.

The berries have been divided into reds and blacks; edible ones first followed by the toxic and inedible ones. There is no hard and fast rule as to edibility as you will see, and there are other poisonous berried plants which have not been included. If you are hesitant about the identification of a berry as one of the edible ones LEAVE IT ALONE and find something else to eat. The berry of the YEW is one that you are advised to leave well alone unless you already have the appropriate knowledge.

RED / ORANGE BERRIES
WILD ROSE / ROSEHIP [Rosa]
There are many varieties of wild rose which produce hips with different physical characteristics. The true dog rose [Rosa canina] hip is oval and without a 'beard' of sepals. Those of the harsh downy rose
[R. tomentosa] have finely lobed sepals, those of the field rose [R. arvensis] are more rounded with the sepals scarcely lobed, and the soft downy-rose [R. mollis] has five sepals. Hips are a good source of vitamin C and have a slightly acid taste with a hint of sweetness.
Rosehips - Rosa Canina
Rosa
HAWTHORN [Crataegus]
There are numerous types of hawthorn worldwide, but C. monogyna is perhaps the most frequent inhabitant of the British Isles. The red fruits have a large stone surrounded by a creamy-white flesh which is very slightly sweet, but frequently kicks in with a nasty after-taste. The berries can be used in conserves, and a haw berry wine is possible.

Seek professional medical advice before consuming the berries if you have a cardiac or circulatory disorder. Personally, I do not tolerate hawthorn berries well.

Hawthorn Berries - Wild Food School
Crataegus
ROWAN / MOUNTAIN ASH [Sorbus aucuparia]
Although the rowan is associated with high upland terrains it is also frequently found in lowland areas and urban environments where the clusters of bright orange-red berries make a colourful autumn splash. High in vitamin C the berries can be made into a jelly which goes well with game meats, though on their own the berries do not taste pleasant. In the past an alcoholic liquor called diodgriafel was brewed from the berries in Wales; the process, according to an 18th. century traveller to the region involving: '...pouring water over them (berries), and setting the infusion to ferment. When kept for some times, this is by no means an unpleasant liquor...'
Given the ingenuity of Man no doubt similar potions were made in other parts of the world. One 18th. century Botanist / Physician commented that: 'The fruit dried and reduced to powder make wholesome bread.' Whether he had ever conducted such an exercise personally he does not mention.
Mountain Ash/Rowan Berries - Wild Food School
Sorbus aucuparia
GUELDER ROSE [Viburnum opulus]
A frequent shrubby inhabitant of moist and wet ground. Often growing alongside sallow and alder buckthorn, guelder leaves are maple-like in appearance. Although the berries are edible they MUST be cooked, and are a very good source of vitamin C. That said, they have a peculiar after-taste which needs masking with lots of sugar and/or honey (as one Russian recipe used), while the ripe berries smell rather foul.

On the only occasion I made a small amount of jelly from the berries a little of the smell lingered, while the the after-taste reminded me of a cough medicine I'd had when young. Indeed, further research revealed that guelder rose was used in cough medicines.

 

Guelder Rose Berries - Wild Food School
Viburnum opulus
SEA BUCKTHORN [Hippophae rhamnoides]
A good vitamin source the berries - which eventually turn orange-yellow - sometimes remain on this coastal shrub through the winter. Acid-tasting, the berries can be a little too astringent for many foragers but they might make a quite good conserve with the addition of sugar. However, a few ripe raw berries nibbled on the trail give a wonderfully refreshing citrus-like acid hit.

 

Sea Buckthorn Berries - Wild Food School
Hippophae rhamnoides
WHITEBEAM [Sorbus aria]
There are several varieties of Whitebeam and I cannot say that I have had occasion to try them, although supposedly they may be eaten once they have started to 'blet' (being softened by frost, like medlars). There are references to them being used
in vinegar, spirits and also in bread.
Whitebeam Berries - Wild Food School
Sorbus
HONEYSUCKLE [Lonicera periclymenum]
A climbing plant of hedgerows, woodland margins and thickets, the stems entwine themselves round other shrubs. The red berries are ever so slightly sweet, being more seed than flesh. As not much is known about the nature of the berries I would suggest that you are extremely cautious if you decide try them, and do not try 'domesticated' varieties which might have had their chemical constituent content altered through plant breeding. Do not ingest the seed and do check your personal tolerance first.
Wild Honeysuckle Berries - Wild Food School
Lonicera periclymenum
YEW [Taxus baccata]
Regarded as one of THE most poisonous and deadly plant materials around the scarlet berries of yew contain a slightly sugary gloop surrounding the seed and which can be extracted by VERY GENTLY squeezing the berry. The inner brown-black seed is deadly poisonous and must not be eaten.

If you wish to try the yew berry sap it is ESSENTIAL to check your personal tolerance before trying. In any event only try the sap of one
or two berries as a larger quantity might well contain a sufficient build up of toxins which could cause harm. One best left to foraging professionals.

POISONOUS Yew Berries - Wild Food School
Taxus baccata
HIGHLY TOXIC
BLACK BRYONY [Tamus communis]
More common in the south of Britain the shiny scarlet berries of this climbing hedgerow and woodland margin plant are highly poisonous.
The clusters of berries, have an almost twining,
vine-like, posture which is not really obvious in
the picture.
POISONOUS Black Bryony Berries - Wild Food School
Tamus communis
HIGHLY TOXIC
BITTERSWEET [Solanum dulcamara]
Also known as woody nightshade the poisonous berries of this scrambling hedgerow and woodland plant are slightly egg-shaped; starting life as a green fruit, and passing through a yellow stage before taking on their final red colouration. The petals
of the bright purple flowers generally curve slightly backward towards the flower stalk, certainly in older plants.
POISONOUS Bittersweet Berries - Wild Food School
Solanum dulcamara
TOXIC
SPINDLE [Euonymus europaeus]
This small, and mostly inconspicuous, tree or shrub produces bright reddish-pink, lobed, poisonous fruits in the autumn. The fruit capsules eventually split open to reveal a bright orange seed [not seen in the picture].
Poisonous Spindle Tree Berries - Wild Food School
Euonymus europaeus
HIGHLY TOXIC
HOLLY [Ilex aquifolium]
This prickly species needs no introduction. The red berries are formed on the female tree and are poisonous.
POISONOUS Holly Berries - Wild Food School
Ilex aquifoilum
TOXIC
BUTCHER'S BROOM [Ruscus aculeatus]
An evergreen low, shrub-like, plant of woodland and scrubby areas, with leaves that end in a prickly point. Although the species has some edible qualities the berries are NOT for human consumption.
POISONOUS Butcher's Broom Berry - Wild Food School
Ruscus aculeatus
TOXIC

 

BLACK / PURPLE / BLUE BERRIES

BILBERRY [Vaccinium myrtyllus]
A lover of acid soils, particularly high moorland and heath, the bilberry provides the forager with a vitamin-rich fruit with a purple bloom. Also known as whortleberry and blaeberry the fruits may be eaten raw or cooked. They make a wonderful bilberry pie.

Bilberries - Wild Food School
Vaccinium myrtyllus
DAMSON [Prunus domestica]
Sometimes called bullace, the damson provides an excellent, if somewhat sour, plum-like fruit in the autumn months. The fruits frequently have a purplish bloom and are about the size of a large grape. They are made into jams, pies and wines, and make a wicked damson-vodka, equivalent of sloe gin.

 

 

Damsons - Wild Food School
Prunus domestica
COMMON ELDER [Sambucus nigra]
Elder probably needs no introduction and is a frequent inhabitant of rich soils. The quality of the berries, which are a good source of vitamin C, can be a bit variable - sometimes being a little bitter, at others mild tasted but not sweet. Some folks react badly to the berries.

Common Elder - Wild Food School
Sambucus nigra
SLOE [Prunus spinosa]
Blue-black sloes, with their bloom, are the fruit of the blackthorn shrub/tree. Extremely tart, acid and astringent the berries make a good conserve (sloe and apple is a good combination) and are the essential ingredient for Sloe Gin.

Incidentally, don't throw away the 'spent' sloes (or damsons from your damson vodka) as they can still make a good jam or conserve.

Blackthorn / Sloes - Wild Food School
Prunus spinosa
IVY [Hedera helix]
Another very common climbing plant which needs little introduction. Once pollinated - often by wasps - the globular flower heads produce ribbed black berries which are poisonous.
POISONOUS Ivy Berries - Wild Food School
Hedera helix
HIGHLY TOXIC
TUTSAN [Hypericum androsaemum]
A member of the St. John's-Wort family tutsan is a shrub-like plant of damp hedgerows and woodland. Initially green the berries become red, finally ripening to a purple-black colour. Although used in herbal medicine the berries should not be consumed as a foodstuff and regarded as toxic.
POISONOUS Tutsan Berries - Wild Food School
Hypericum androsaemum
TOXIC

 

SOME OTHER RED & BLACK POISONOUS BERRIES

LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY [Convallaria majalis]. Poisonous red berry. In the absence of flowers/buds the leaves of this plant may be mistaken for the garlicky ramsons [Allium ursinum], however the smell of garlic is absent in convallaria.

BLACK NIGHTSHADE [Solanum nigrum]. Green berries turning black when ripe.

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE [Atropa belladonna]. Highly poisonous black berries.

DOGWOOD [Cornus sanguinea]. The clusters of black berries which form in the autumn are bitter and inedible.

HERB PARIS [Paris quadrafolia]. Poisonous black berry.

 
NEVER take any chances with berries.
If you do not recognize a berry as being one of the edible ones
DON'T PUT IT ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR MOUTH.

Pictures and text Copyright © M. Harrison, 2008.

Wild Food School Homepage