Note : Please don’t send me photos or ask me to identify trees, plants, berries or mushrooms.
We’re at the end of August now, a fantastic time to forage for the many edible fruits and berries that nature provides us. What’s the difference between fruits and berries I hear you say? Botanically speaking, fruits are the seed bearing structure of flowering plants; berries are a type of fruit, ones where the fruit is produced from a single ovary. For most of us the definition of whether something is a berry or a fruit is much less important than whether it’s edible or not!
I’ve written this post to help people understand which fruits and berries are edible and which aren’t. It isn’t intended to be an identification guide, although I’ve included tips on where it grows and photos. Use good tree and plant identification books to help you out. As with any foraging, don’t pick anything, let alone eat it, unless you are 100% positive that you know what it is.
Also bear in mind that I’m not a toxicologist, the ‘sciencey’ bits are to the best of my understanding.
A note on berries: I know that many people say that you should never eat red berries but that is a myth, a myth that is both misleading and potentially dangerous. On the one hand there are many red berries that are edible (see below) and by following this mantra you would miss out on them.
On the flip side I’ve met people who believe that you can eat berries that aren’t red; this is entirely false and could prove fatal. So don’t rely on sayings, take the time to learn which are edible and which aren’t!
Another note: This list isn’t exhaustive, it only contains fruits and berries that I’ve encountered to date, there are plenty of others out there.
Crab apples (Malus sylvestris) grow throughout the British Isles, usually singly, and have a preference for heavy, well drained soils. The apples are very tart and generally not considered suitable for eating raw. We tend to use them in jams and jellies, such as in this apple and blackberry jam. Or you could use them in a wild marjoram jelly.
These are the rugby ball shaped red berries found on wild roses. They can be found across the British Isles and are often found in hedgerows. Here in Kent the species we come across most frequently is probably dog rose (Rosa canina). Rosehips contain high quantities of Vitamin C, indeed during the 2nd World War people were encouraged to scour the hedgerows and collect them up. They need to be processed ideally, such as in this recipe for rosehip and crab apple jelly, but certainly make sure that you remove the seed before eating as the microscopic hairs on the seed will cause irritation if swallowed.
Also note in the photo below the poisonous berries of black bryony (Dioscorea communis sometimes referred to as Tamus communis); these are the ones on the right hand side of the photo that are more spherical and glossy.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is a small tree found throughout the British Isles although it is most common in the north and west. Often it’s known as mountain ash due to its liking of high places and the similarity of the leaf to ash, but they aren’t related. The berries grow in bunches and vary between orange and red. They are delicious when made into a jam .
Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is a close relative of rowan with a paler berry, sometimes slightly orangey. They are rare in the wild but we’re fortunate to have lots of them in and around our ancient woodland camp. The berries are edible raw, I find them to be like a potato in texture with a mildy sweet taste, but you can also use them to make jams and jellies.
The tree is relatively easy to identify from its leaf, which is pale green on top and silvery white on the underside (from which the tree derives its name).
Elder (Sambucus nigra) is another common small tree found all around the British Isles, with the exception of the far north of Scotland.. Whilst it prefers chalky soil, it will grow pretty much anywhere, in fact Nicola and I had one grow through a crack in the pavement at the front of our house. The berries are about the size of a petit pois and very dark purple.
Most parts of elder are toxic, containing cyanogenic glycosides (see the note below on the Rosacea family for more information on cyanogenic glycosides) including the seeds in the berries. Whilst some people seem able to eat them raw, others have reported feeling sick after eating just a few. We recommend cooking them before eating. Be cautious as the berries can also have a laxative affect.
They work well as a syrup or mixed with blackberries to make a cordial.
Haws are the red berries that grow on hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which is regarded as either a shrub or small tree; with that said, I’ve seen several hawthorn that approached 10m in height. They’re probably best consumed as a fruit leather or as a sauce. We’ve also used them to make a hawthorn tincture, an alcohol based herbal remedy, which has been shown to strengthen the heart muscles.
A shrub or small tree found on the coast, the berries of Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) can be eaten raw but I find them to be too astringent (think cheeks sucked in!). Another that is probably best turned into a jam or jelly for consumption.
Wild cherry (Prunus avium) grows throughout the British Isles, but not the far north. We’ve got lots of it in and around our ancient woodland camp. The fruits are somewhat smaller than their cultivated cousins but the main issue is getting to them before the birds. Wild cherry tends to fruit earlier than other trees, often in June. The photo below is of unripened berries.
Sloes grow on blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), a common hedgerow tree. They can be found across the British Isles although in my experience more so in the west, where they tend to be used to keep livestock in. The berries are somewhat sharp and are best used in either a jam or for sloe gin or vodka. After the last batch of sloe vodka we made, Nicola squeezed the pips out of the fruit and coated them in chocolate, a fantastic liqueur.
Plums (Prunus domestica ssp. domestica) aren’t native but are found all around the British isles, generally near past or present human settlement. We’ve recently made this delicious plum ketchup.
The origins of damsons (Prunus domestica ssp. insititia) is uncertain, It isn’t a native but certainly has been cultivated in the British Isles for a very long time. Some argue that it is a cross between a sloe and plum, others that it is a variety of sloe alone. Whatever might be correct, they are worth keeping an eye out for. Some are often sharp and need to be cooked, some are sweeter and can be eaten raw.
Yew (Taxus baccata) is one of 3 conifers native to the British Isles and is most common in the south; it’s also common in churchyards throughout the British Isles. Whilst we refer to the yew having a berry, it isn’t a true fruit but in fact a modified cone called an aril. All parts of yew are toxic with the exception of the berry – but not the seed inside, which is toxic. The aril is glutinous and quite sweet, I really like the taste and consistency.
All other parts of the yew contain taxane alkaloids. Symptoms of yew poisoning include nausea and vomitting, stomach pains, feeling dizzy and weak, confusion and an abnormal heart rate. Enough can cause a condition known as ‘complete heart block‘, which in turn can lead to a heart attack and death.
Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is common throughout the British Isles preferring heavy soil; it’s scarce where we are but there are the odd one or two about. The berries contain Vitamin C but they must be cooked before you eat them. Even then there are some reports of people suffering from diarrhoea and/or vomiting after consuming.
Not much to say about blackberries really, other than that they’re delicious!
Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris), often referred to simply as barberry, is a deciduous shrub often found in hedgerows, banks and coppice. It can be found all over the British Isles, although not so much on high ground and seems to prefer chalky soil. Bearing that in mind, it’s surprisingly scarce in Kent, where we’re based. It’s generally regarded as native but I’ve also found sources that think it’s naturalised. Whichever the case, it’s been in the British Isles for a long time as there’s evidence of it at Grime’s Graves in neolithic times.
The berries of common barberry are edible. They’re red, ellipsoid and up to 1cm long. They’re ripe in late summer/early autumn. Whilst they contain Vitamin C they can be quite sour, probably best used to make a jam or jelly.
Avoid common barberry berries if your pregnant or breast feeding, have diabetes or low blood pressure and don’t give them to small children.
Berberis contain an isoquinoline alkaloid called berberine. It’s used to treat diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure amongst other indications.
The roots and stem of the plant should be avoided as they contain the highest concentration of berberine; leaves and flowers are toxin free.
There are many other species of barberry, either with red or black berries, that have been introduced from other parts of the world and are often planted in gardens. The berries on lots of these other species are toxic. So unless you’re entirely sure you have common barberry, don’t eat the berries.
Symptoms of berberine poisoning include confusion, nosebleeds, diarrhoea, vomiting and renal irritation but is rarely serious.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a common plant found on heathlands throughout the northern hemisphere. The berries can be used in jams and jellies as well as sauces. They’re also used to treat disorders of the gastrointestinal tract and diabetes.
A note on the Rosaceae family
Many of the fruits and berries described above are in the Rosaceae family of plants– apple, rosehip, rowan, whitebeam, hawthorn, wild cherry, blackthorn, plum, damson and blackberry.
The seeds of many members of the Rosaceae family contain a cyanogenic glycoside called amygdalin*. If cyanogenic glycosides are ingested, stomach enzymes can start a process whereby hydrocyanic acid (HCN) is liberated. This in turn can cause oxygen starvation of the nervous system, leading to death. Ruminants are generally more susceptible than non-ruminants
My 2 go-to books on plant toxicity ’Poisonous Plants in Britain and their effects on Animals and Man’ by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ‘A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants’ by Frohne and Pfander, discuss amygdalin poisoning.
Frohne and Pfander, in relation to the Rosacea family in general, state that
“cyanogenic glycosides when taken orally are not as a rule under optimal conditions for the liberation of HCN” and that “concentrations of HCN that are dangerous to the human organism can only be reached after massive ingestion of those plant parts which have a high content of cyanogenic compounds”.
Frohne and Pfander go on to cite a recorded case where a man ate an entire cup of apple seeds in one go, and consequently died of cyanide poisoning.
Eating the odd seed probably won’t do you any harm but avoid eating them wherever possible.
* Not members of the sub-family Rosoideae, which includes blackberries and strawberries.
It would be remiss to not include toxic berries, here’s some of them.
The Wayfaring Tree (Viburnum lantana) is a small tree common in hedgerows in the south east of England, becoming less common as you move north or west. I’ve come across a couple of accounts of people eating the berries in famine situations but the perceived wisdom seems to be that they are mildly toxic and cause vomiting and diarrhoea. I’ve never tried them so have no first hand experience on the matter!
Honeysuckle is a vine like plant and consists of around 100 species that are found in the northern hemisphere. Our native species (Lonicera periclymenum) can be found in hedgerows and woodlands throughout the British Isles.
The berries aren’t always red and can vary in colour including white, yellow, blue and black.
The berries on some species are toxic and can cause vomiting, diarrhea, sweats, dilated pupils and increased heartbeat. If ingested in large quantities, the berries can cause respiratory failure, convulsions and coma. According to the Toxicological Centres in Berlin and Zurich, you need to eat around 30 berries for the minor symptoms to appear.
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a UK native tree, although the name Dogwood is given to around 60 species in the family. They can be found in most temperate zones of the northern hemisphere. In the Beritish Isles you are most likely to encounter them in the south.
I’ve read mixed reports on the toxicity of Cornus sanguinea, with claims that they are toxic and can cause vomiting to claims that they’ve been eaten with no ill effect, although they are very bitter (this latter claim is confirmed in The Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants by Frohne and Pfander, which also notes that there are no reports of poisoning from eating the berries).
I’ve never tried them and due to this uncertainty put them in the ‘leave alone’ category.
Often found in the south and west of the British Isles (but not sometimes further afield), Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) is a member of the St John’s Wort family. All parts of the plant are toxic due to the presence of hypericin which can cause nausea and diarrhoea; the berries are especially toxic.
Lords & Ladies
Lords & Ladies (Arum maculatum) are common throughout the British Isles with the exception of central and northern Scotland. They contain calcium oxalate crystals which can irritate the skin and cause inflamation and blistering. I’ve bitten into a leaf to see what would happen; immeadiately my tongue and lips started to tingle so I spat it out again. But the tingling lasted for several hours before fading away with no other effects. I’m led to believe the same thing happens with the berries. Eating large quantities of this plant can cause severe gastro-enteritis ending in coma and death.
Bittersweet, or Woody Nightshade, (Solanum dulcamara) creeps and crawls its way through the hedgerows of the British Isles but can also be found in woodlands and ditches. It has a cultivar found on the coast called Solanum dulcamaravar.marinum which is often prostrate (laying flat) on the ground.
The berries contain solanine, a toxic alkaloid. Symptoms of solanine poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and burning of the throat; these symptoms can take up to 19 hours to manifest. In more severe cases, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice and death have been reported. You can die from eating moderate quantities of solanine (6mg/kg body weight).
It’s worth noting that the amount of solanine is highest when the berries are green and decreases as the berries ripen until they only contain traces of solinine. Fatal cases are extremely rare.
Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) belongs to the same family as Bittersweet, above. It tends to grow in wooded areas as well as on disturbed ground; we find it in both of those environments around our ancient woodland camp. Black nightshade contains solanine and poisoning symptoms are as given above for Bittersweet.
Black nightshade has a tendency to form polyploids and hybrids giving rise to many sub-species and forms that are virtually indistinguishable to the eye. Which explains why in some parts of the world the leaves and berries are eaten but there are also recorded cases of poisoning in people and animals, cattle, horses and pigs in particular. As there is so much many variation within Black Nightshade, ingestion is best avoided.
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is native to England and eastern Wales and is typically found in woodlands growing on chalk or limestone. It is often referred to simply as Belladonna. All parts are extremely toxic with the roots the most toxic part.
The berries are initaiily green and turn black as they ripen. The majority of poisonings are due to eating the berries and the majority of those with chidren as the berries can look attractive and have a sweetish taste. As few as 2 – 5 berries can be fatal in children, 10 – 20 berries can be fatal for an adult.
If you suspect that deadly nightshade has been eaten, seek medical help immeadiately and drink salt in warm water to act as an emetic in the meantime.
The plant contains a variable mixture of L-hyoscyamine, atropane and scopolamine alkaloids; due to this variable mixture symptoms are also varied and include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.
It’s also poisonous to many domesticated animals although rabbits and cows seem to be able to eat it without any ill effects.
Holly (Illex aquifolium) is a native deciduous tree that retains its leaves in the winter. It can be found all over the British Isles but tends to like being near oak and beech. Most of us are familiar with its spiny leaves and red berries. It’s a member of a large genus of around 480 species that have a wide distribution. Eating of the berries has been most frequently reported in children. I’ve seen a few claims that eating more than 20 berries is fatal in children but have been unable to find the source of this claim and in fact information on the toxicity of holly berries is scarce. It is thought that the berries contains a digitalis like chemical as well as triterpene compounds. Symptoms are abdominal pains, vomitting and diarrhea; there are no recorded cases of death in modern literature.
Black bryony (Dioscorea communis sometimes referred to as Tamus communis) tends to grow on well drained soil, typically chalk and limestone but sometimes clay. They contain calcium oxylate (similar to Lords & Ladies discussed above) and touching the leaves and stems can cause irritation of the skin. Eating the berries can induce severe irritation of the stomach and intestines, seizures and kidney failure. See the section above on rosehips for a photo.
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) will grow all over the British Isles but has a preference for chalky soils and seems to like the edges of woods and hedgerows. It‘s leaves are similar to Dogwood but the fruits are unmistakable.
Due to the colour and shape of the berries they are especially attractive to children and many cases of eating them have been recorded. Fortunately in recent times only cases involving mild poisoning have been recorded. Symptoms include severe diarrhea and fever; these symptoms can take 8 – 15 hours to manifest themselves.
Ivy (Hedera helex) is a common woody, climbing plant in the British Isles. It’s often found in woodlands where it climbs up trees. Whilst there’s been much debate on the subject, it isn’t thought that ivy causes the tree any harm. The leaves are often lobed when the plant is juvenille, much less so as the plant matures.
All parts of ivy contain triterpenoid saponins, including the berries. It is these saponins that are the most likely cause of toxicity in the berries as investigations haven’t revealed any other toxic compounds in the berries. Consumption can cause gastro-intestinal problems. As the berries are very bitter when ripe it’s unlikely that that they would be consumed in large quantities.
Laurels aren’t as straightforward as you might imagine. This is because some of the plants and trees we call laurel aren’t!
True laurels are in the Lauraceae family; it isn’t resolved how many species are in this family, but it probably includes:
- Bay laurel Laurus nobilis,
- Azores laurel Laurus azorica,
- Canary laurel Laurus novocanariensis,
- Californian laurel Umbellularia californica, and
- Sassafras sassafras albidum.
Other trees and shrubs called laurels, but aren’t, include:
- Cherry laurel (sometimes known as English laurel, although it isn’t a native) Prunus laurocerasus,
- Portugal laurel Prunus lusitanica, and
- Spurge laurel Daphne laureola (it’s not a spurge either!).
The photo below is cherry laurel growing on one of our regular foraging routes.
In terms of toxicity:
Don’t eat any true laurel berries as they’re poisonous. The true laurels contain grayanotoxins which, if ingested, can interfere with skeletal and nerve function and hinder the action of heart muscles. The leaves of bay laurel are edible and often used in cooking.
Cherry and Portugal laurel seeds (and leaves) contain very high levels of amygdalin, but the fruit pulp itself (according to Frohne and Pfander) contains very low quantities of amygdalin and there is “little fear of serious poisoning as a result of eating the berries”. In Germany in 1976, 11 children were close to death after eating cherry laurel berries and had to have their stomachs pumped. So if you want to eat cherry laurel berries, be sure to spit out the seeds.
The berries of spurge laurel probably contain mezerein and daphnetoxin, which are cellular poisons. The sap of spurge laurel is caustic and can cause a nasty rash on your skin.
As a reminder on berries you can and can’t eat:
I haven’t included photos of all of these trees and plants so you’ll need to do a little more identification still, but as a summary this should be useful.
Edible red berries
Toxic red berries
Edible black berries
Toxic black berries
|Hawthorn||Bittersweet||Elder (when cooked)||Ivy|
|Rosehips||Wayfaring Tree||Bilberry||Black nightsghade|
|Sea buckthorn||Honeysuckle (some species)||Laurel|
|Guelder rose (when cooked)||Lords & Ladies|
|Yew (but not the seed inside)|
We look at many of these fruits and berries on our 1 day foraging course.
You can see loads of photos from the day, as well as from all of our courses, on our Facebook page.