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8 Poisonous Berries in the United States

A wonderful way to enjoy flora and fauna while vacationing in Montana is hiking. Every trail offers an expedition through nature’s vast beauty with something for everyone. From picturesque day hikes in Glacier National Park to multi-day hiking adventures in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With moderate temperatures, fertile soil, and plenty of rain, the Pacific Northwest offers the native plant species a perfect environment to thrive in. Montana soils and habitats host a large variety of berries and small fruits including; huckleberries, strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, honeyberries, bush cherries, gooseberries, juneberries, and currants to name a few.

However, among these delicious treats grow poisonous berry species as well, species you should avoid on your trek. Causing mild to severe medical complications, consuming poisonous berries can ruin your trip (or worse). Today, let’s look at some of Montana’s more common toxic berry species and how you can differentiate them from edible berries.

Holly Berries (Ilex opaca)

Holly berries, branches, and leaves make for pretty decorations, but don’t let that fool you – the berries are toxic for both humans and pets. Holly contains a caffeine-related alkaloid – theobromine – found in chocolate. It is likely to be harmful when a person consumes ten to fifteen holly berries. Vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and drowsiness may result from swallowing holly berries.  Holly leaves can also cause unpleasant health problems if eaten, but most people avoid them due to their prickly nature.


Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum)

Mistletoe is toxic, all parts of the plant (berries, stems, and leaves) are poisonous. The Mistletoe plant contains Phoratoxin and Viscotoxin, both of which, when swallowed, are toxic proteins. They are likely to cause severe stomach problems, and slow the heartbeat (bradycardia), with potential to affect the brain, kidney, and adrenal glands.


Jerusalem Cherries (Solanum pseudocapsicum)

Jerusalem cherry is a plant with shiny blue-green leaves and fruits similar in appearance to cherry tomatoes. They are also used during Christmas holidays as a decoration – sometimes called Christmas cherry. The berries are toxic, containing solanine, a compound that can cause gastrointestinal infections, cramping of the stomach, and irregular heartbeat (tachycardia).


Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara)

Although not the same plant as the deadly nightshade or belladonna (an unusual and highly toxic plant), bittersweet nightshade is still very toxic. In children who have consumed the berries, this plant has caused severe illness and even demise. Berries from this plant contain solanine and may result in terribly severe conditions.


Pokeweed Berries (Phytolacca americana)

These purple berries resemble grapes, but the roots, leaves, stem, and fruit contain toxic substances. As it matures, this plant appears to become more poisonous, and therefore consuming the berries is extremely dangerous. Nausea, vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, diarrhea, low blood pressure, trouble controlling urination (incontinence), dehydration, and other adverse health effects can result from pokeweed.


Yew Berries (Taxus brevifolia)

Technically, there are no “berries” in the yew. It has a seed within a fleshy cup (aril). Aril, although edible when it’s ripe, the seed is dangerous and can cause severe complications. Death, depending on the parts of the plant and the amount consumed, can occur in a matter of a few hours.


Virginia Creeper Berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia creeper berries are very poisonous to humans and, if consumed, can be fatal. In some individuals, its sap will initially irritate the skin. The berries resemble purple grapes and carry tiny crystals called oxalate crystals. The foliage of the Virginia creeper also contains these crystals. If the leaves or berries are swallowed, they may cause allergic reactions to the lips, mouth, tongue, and throat.


Ivy Berries (Hedera helix)

In the United States, poisonous ivy is present everywhere except Alaska and Hawaii. Throughout the Eastern and Midwestern states, it is most prevalent. Outside the U.S., it is less frequent, but still present in almost every region. Purple-black to orange-yellow in color, the toxin saponin is found in these berries. They can cause nausea, vomiting, and cramps in the stomach.

You will not find poison ivy on the western side of Glacier National Park in Montana.


How to Identify Common Poisonous Berries

How does one recognize poisonous berries? Learning more about different types of hazardous berries is important. Although this list does not cover every dangerous berry in Montana, it demonstrates there is more to learn, especially for people venturing out into the wilderness. The following are some common ways to help identify toxic berries.

1. Do not eat when in doubt

There are very few situations that the minuscule quantity of calories in berries is worth the illness risk. It simply is not worth the gamble, even in a survival situation. You can be robbed of vital fluids and sugars from resulting diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea, putting you in more severe trouble than you would have been without a tiny bit of food.

2. Do not eat green, yellow, and white berries

In most cases, these three colors indicate poisonous berries (some botanists guess as much as 90 percent). In contrast, a wise hiker may be able to identify some exceptions. However, the rule of thumb is to avoid all green, yellow, and white berries unless you’re confident they are safe, and healthy.

3. Do not eat berries on plants with spines, bitter smells, or milky sap

In general, these plants, including their berries, are not healthy for humans to consume. Avoid consuming berries on these plants.

4. Tear the berries to check the liquid on your lips or tongue

One possible way to test berries is to see if their juices cause any discomfort or reactions.  For ten to fifteen minutes, chew the berry, but do not swallow it. Analyze only one berry species at a time for if you can not determine which is causing the issue between two fruits, this check is meaningless.

5. Eat 1-2 berries and wait 15-20 minutes

Again, it’s best to move on if you have any doubt. But, if you need to survive, and berries are your only option, you must consume slowly to see how your body responds. You can typically detect the signs of toxicity in fifteen to twenty minutes of consumption.