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Your Guide to Identifying Wild Berries

There's nothing better than heading out on a perfect summer morning to harvest berries with the dew still on them. Berries can be an excellent supplement to foraged cuisine, as they provide vital sustenance and complement a protein-rich diet. 

There are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind when you set out to look for berries in the forest. The first is never to eat what you can't recognize. If you can't positively identify the berry as either toxic or nontoxic, you shouldn't eat it.


Remember that you're not the only creature that enjoys a handful of blueberries on a summer's day. Bees, wasps, and bears are all creatures that enjoy the sweet flesh of berries as well. And all of them have formidable defensive systems if taken unawares. 

When you stumble upon a patch of wild berries, take a moment to look and listen to your environment. You don't want to surprise a foraging bear or step on a feeding wasp. If you're confident that no rustlings or noises are coming from another creature in the patch, start harvesting. 

If you have a craving for berries and would like to try to pick your own, you should know which ones can keep you healthy and which can make you sick. The three most common berries growing wild in the U.S. are raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries. There are also a few look-alikes, some poisonous and some not. 

Here's a guide to the three common berries that most of us recognize and some poisonous berries that masquerade as their non-toxic varieties.


These recognizable berries rank right up there with strawberries and blueberries as people's favorite berry. There are black and red raspberries, and the darker variety is often mistaken for blackberries, but they're both edible.

There's a straightforward way to tell the difference between blackberries and black raspberries—blackberries are larger and shinier, have a white core (raspberries have hollow centers), and appear later in the season.

Raspberries are often mistaken by those foraging for food /our-obsession/blogs/hunting/foraging-for-food-a-hunter-gatherer-guide-to-finding-food-in-the-wild as thimbleberries, which are abundant in midwestern or western climes in the United States. These non-poisonous berries are also a great supplement to any diet and are packed with Vitamin C.

The way to tell a raspberry and thimbleberry apart is relatively simple. The stems of a thimbleberry are thornless, and, if you look at the berry itself, it resembles a thimble in that it's flatter and broader than a raspberry.

Also, check the surrounding area for birds, as they devour thimbleberries.



These dark, sweet berries and their lookalikes are popular and delicious. The unusual aspect of blackberry look-alikes is that none of them are dangerous, and all are as delicious as the blackberries themselves.

One of the tastiest forest floor foods, these berries make everything taste better. From jam to pie to cobbler to a topping for waffles, blackberries and their counterparts are the true taste of summer.

Blackberries are often found along the edges of forests and sometimes grow out in the open. However, if the area is mowed regularly, you won't find many mature plants. You're liable to find marionberries, boysenberries, loganberries, and olallieberries if you live in the Pacific Northwest.

If you live on the east coast, you'll probably run into dewberries, a nontoxic berry that looks similar to blackberries. You can easily discern these from blackberries by their growing structure. Blackberries grow in long canes, or stems, whereas dewberries grow on a brambly bush that rarely stretches over two feet in height. Dewberries are also larger in diameter than blackberries are, and they are just as tasty.



Elderberries are delicious, great for your immune system, and grow all over the continental U.S., but a lot of forest food foragers avoid them as they resemble some highly poisonous berries that can be fatal if consumed in large quantities.

There are some clear and easy ways to identify elderberries from their more toxic neighbor, pokeberries. Elderberries grow in flat clusters, and the berries are smaller than pokeberries and perfectly round.

Pokeberries, on the other hand, grow in clusters that look like a bunch of grapes. These are mildly toxic, so, even though it's not a good idea to ingest them, your reaction won't be as severe as it would be if you swallowed water hemlock, another elderberry look-alike.

Water hemlock berries, unlike pokeberries, are very poisonous and can cause severe reactions. In fact, all parts of this plant are toxic, from stems to berries. The easiest way to tell the difference between elderberries and water hemlock is to check the stems.

Water hemlock is herbaceous, and the elderberry has a woody stem, which means that elderberry stems are covered with bark, whereas water hemlock has green or purple and green stems. If the stem doesn't have bark on it, don't eat that berry!

Testing Berries

There are some straightforward tests that you can try if you want to check if a berry is toxic. First, take a small sample, like a berry or stem or leaf, and rub it onto a portion of your skin, like an arm or ankle.

If you see any rashes or irritation after a few moments, the plant is probably poisonous. Remember, the toxins in a plant are its defense mechanism to keep other creatures from eating it. There's a high chance that the plant is toxic if you see a reaction in your skin.

You can try to put a small amount on your lips if you don't see any initial irritation on your skin. If you feel any burning, tingling, or numbness, do not apply any more berry juice or eat any more of the berries that caused that reaction.

Final Thoughts

The safest way to forage for berries in the forest is to know the differences between the nontoxic and poisonous types of berry by sight. Guidebooks or information from the local ranger can be a great resource if you're foraging for wild berries.

Made for outdoors people by outdoors people, Mossy Oak is a company that knows how to make the most of your time in the wilderness. Enhance your outdoor lifestyle with advice from Mossy Oak. Explore our educational blog series to find out more about hunting and foraging safely in your area.

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