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Toxic Berries in the Pacific Northwest

If you're like me you have spent a lifetime walking through the outdoors encountering berries and, for safety sake, assuming that they are all poisonous. Sure you can likely identify a blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, potentially even a Huckleberry, but beyond that you don't risk eating the mystery berry, due to fear of the outcome. This guide is meant to change that, and give you confidence in picking your way through the forest trying the berries you encounter.

The good news is, it is extremely rare to encounter a berry that is not edible in the Northwest, and rather than learn every berry you can eat, your time may be better spent learning the berries you can't eat. So lets start there, then you can move onto our other post, Edible Berries of the Pacific Northwest.

Poisonous/toxic berries of the Pacific Northwest:

Red Elderberry

Sambucus Racemosa

The Red Elderberry has a bad rap for being poisonous, or toxic but it isn't that bleak. These berries should merely be avoided raw, cooked they are as delicious as their black cousins. Avoid the foliage as it is toxic. Even raw, a few berries shouldn't affect you too much.

The Plant:

Elders can be found throughout the PNW the blue, in the drier climates and mountain regions, while Red grow in wetter lower climates. Generally its form is that of a small tree 5 to 20 feet (2.5 - 7 m) tall, leaves are lance shape and come in pinnate clusters of 5 to 9 leaves ranging from two to eleven inches in length (5-30 cm). Flowers form in flat clusters that develop into berry clusters.

Nightshade Berries (Belladona, Deadly Nightshade, Death Cherries)

Solanum Dulcamara

Neither the Nightshade plant nor it's berries are to be messed with. Whereas many plant and berries may have mild toxicity, this one is a killer. It is known to be toxic to both humans and animals including livestock. It has been used for centuries as a poison or "king Killer." Macbeth, King of Scotland, Emperor Augustus of Rome, and Emperor Claudius of Rome were all rumored to be killed by the Deadly Nightshade.

The plant:

A shrub often vine like grows 1 to 3 feet (1/3rd to 1m) tall. Coming from the tomato and potato family the plant can have similar aromas. Lanceolate leaves measure .25 to 2 inches (0.6 - 5cm) long that alternate on the branched stems. Pendulous white to dark purple lantern like flowers form out of a star shaped leaf pattern that turn to berries maintaining the star shaped leaves that can be used in identifying.

The Berries:

Berries are around .25 inches (0.6cm) and change from a pale to pink/red into a dark purple or black as the y ripen. Some varieties are more toxic than others, so best to avoid all together as they are extremely toxic.

The effects:

The berries contain alkaloids, many species are narcotic a depress the central nervous system. They can numb the sense of pain, cause hallucinations. Symptoms of poisoning include extreme thirst, pupil dilation, delirium, hallucinations, convulsions, coma.

Interesting History (parental guidance suggested):

Our European heritage of witches flying on broomsticks comes from these hallucinogenic plants. An ointment containing Atropa and Hyosyamus was rubbed on the broomstick then absorbed through the vaginal tissues by "riding" the broom. The "witches" then experienced "flying." According to wildflowers-and-weeds

Snowberry (Waxberry, Ghostberry, Mountain Snowberry, Wolf Berry)

Symphoricarpos Acutus, Symphoricarpos Albus, Symphoricarpos hesperius, Symphoricarpos Hesperius

Unlike the nightshade the Snowberry is mildly toxic and should be avoided in large quantities though indigenous people did consume the berry. This one is easy to spot, and if you keep to avoiding white berries you will be safe.

The Plant:

With cousins in the honeysuckle family, depending on the particular variety it can range from a ground cover (Symphoricarpos Hesperius) to shrubs reaching 3 to 9 feet (1 to 3m) tall. It has alternating ovate leave. It enjoys dry to moist open areas or even rocky outcopping or terrain. It can be found in it's many varieties across the Pacific Northwest and down into California and even Mexico. In spring it dawns pink bell shaped flowers that turn into it's signature white berries.

The Berries:

The white berries are easy to spot and identify as few other plants form such ghost white berries. They contain saponins which isn't easy for the body to ingest and break down giving them their toxic reputation. You will find other mammals munching away at them, moose, bear, deer, and sheep all use them as a stable in their diets. The dog salmon especially likes these berries.

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Melissa Wiese
Melissa Wiese
Oct 06, 2022

My daughter and I are having fun foraging and this is great info, thanks! I have the same question as Julie--that's all the toxic berries to be aware of in the PWN?


Julie Meyer
Julie Meyer
Jun 24, 2022

great information! thank you! and that’s it? I can eat everything else?

Tribe Pilot
Tribe Pilot
Oct 06, 2022
Replying to

Hi foragers. For reasons of risk, like a foreign seed made its way from Asia or some other anomalies we cannot be definitive. However, berries in the pnw are generally non toxic. Many are horrible tasting but won’t cause detrimental harm. You should check what you eat against our edible berries list, which has been verified.

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