Foraging for food in the backcountry is a great way to enjoy a tasty treat on the trail. But, foraging for the wrong berries, scrubs, and leaves could result in an upset stomach, or something much worse.
That’s because not all the tasty-looking plants you see on the trail are okay to eat. Some are highly toxic and are best avoided. The key is knowing how to tell the toxic plants that look like food apart from those that are okay to eat.
If you’ve ever wondered how to identify toxic plants, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll introduce you to 30 types of plants that look like food that you ought to avoid on your travels. That way you can avoid this list of poisonous herbs and berries and stick to eating only edible plants as you hike.
Caution! Foraging Safety
30 Toxic Plants That Look Like Food: What You Need To Know
1. Death Camas
If a name like “death camas” doesn’t tell you to stay clear of this plant, nothing will. All jokes aside, however, death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) is one of the most toxic plants in North America.
Death camas is found throughout the western and midwestern United States and it looks like a tall, grass-like plant. Below the ground, it has a sizable bulb that makes it look dangerously similar to plants like onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and scallions.
The problem is that, unlike these plants, death camas is not edible. It can cause muscle weakness, vomiting, tremors, convulsions, and, as its name suggests, death. Thankfully, poisoning among humans isn’t very common, but death camas is known to cause problems for livestock, especially sheep.
Either way, death camas is one toxic plant that you should avoid at all costs.
2. Jerusalem Cherry
Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) is a nightshade that’s traditionally used as an ornamental plant for Christmas. However, while it makes for a pretty decoration, the fruits and seeds of the Jerusalem cherry are highly toxic.
In fact, the poisonous fruit of the Jerusalem cherry contains solanocapsine. Unless eaten in very large quantities, solanocapsine usually isn’t deadly to humans, but it can cause gastrointestinal problems and severe vomiting. It’s also possible that these berries are poisonous to cats, but more research is needed to confirm that.
The problem is that the fruit of the Jerusalem cherry is a small, reddish-orange cherry tomato-looking fruit. This can make it difficult to identify, particularly because there are so many varieties of this plant. Therefore, it’s generally best to avoid plants that look like cherry tomatoes while foraging in the wild.
3. Doll’s Eyes
If there’s one plant that you need to avoid at all costs, it’s this one: doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda). A member of the buttercup family, doll’s eyes look like innocuous white flowers before they become raisin-sized white berries with a distinctive black spot.
These berries can be found throughout the deciduous woodlands of eastern North America, and they are highly toxic. The plant contains an as-of-yet unidentified toxin that affects the cardiac system. This toxin is found throughout the plant, including in the roots and berries. When ingested, this toxin effectively “sedates” the heart and can lead to immediate cardiac arrest.
Thankfully, you need to eat a fairly large amount of these berries for this to happen, which isn’t likely because the berries are so bitter. But, the doll’s eyes are best to avoid on the trail.
5. Rosary Pea
6. Giant Hogweed
7. Death Cap
8. Angel’s Trumpets
Traditionally used to ward off evil spirits, the tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) is a perennial shrub that’s native to Eurasia. It was traditionally used as a medicinal plant for things like antidepressants.
However, despite its historic medicinal use, the entire tutsan plant, including its berries, which look similar to blueberries in some situations, are toxic. That’s because they contain hypericin, which is a commonly found compound in species of the St. John’s Wort genus (Hypericum).
It’s unclear precisely what it is about hypericin that’s toxic, but it’s believed that this compound can lead to cell death. Nevertheless, consuming tutsan berries can lead to nausea and diarrhea, so it’s perhaps not the best option for your trail snack.
10. Canada Moonseed
Canada moonseed (Menispermum canadense), or simply common moonseed, is a highly toxic plant that’s found throughout eastern North America. It is a relatively small flowering plant that forms in thickets with thick green leaves and small bunches of blueberries.
Although it might look like any other berry-bearing plant, the Canada moonseed is exceptionally toxic. It contains a plant metabolite called dauricine, which is found throughout the plant’s berries, roots, leaves, and flowers. Dauricine causes cardiac issues that can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Needless to say, don’t eat the Canada moonseed.
Interestingly enough, however, this highly toxic compound is being studied for use as a cancer treatment because there’s some hope that it can suppress the growth of cancer cells. One 2019 study found that it was fairly successful at suppressing pancreatic cancer growth in mice. Even still, don’t eat Canada moonseed.
13. False Morels
15. Horse Nettle
Despite its name, horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) is not actually a nettle, but rather it is a type of nightshade.
Horse nettle is a type of herbaceous plant that grows large leaves and has white and yellow star-shaped flowers. It is most commonly found in temperate North America, but you can also find it in areas of Europe, Australia, and temperate Asia.
Also called devil’s tomato, the horse nettle is well-known for bearing a highly toxic tomato-like fruit. This poisonous fruit contains solanine, which is a type of alkaloid that can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, and even respiratory arrest. When eaten in large quantities, horse nettle can even cause death.
Since the fruit of the horse nettle does look a lot like a cherry tomato, it’s important to be careful when picking tomato-like fruits in the wild. Keep in mind that the horse nettle has a thorny stem, which is one way that you can tell the two apart. However, caution is still necessary whenever picking tomato-like fruits on the trail.
Castor (Ricinus communis) is a type of flowering plant that’s arguably best known for the castor bean, which is technically a seed. The castor bean is used to create castor oil, which is used for manufacturing dozens of products, from paints to perfumes.
This plant is traditionally found throughout the Mediterranean Basin, the Indian subcontinent, and eastern Africa, though it’s now spread throughout the tropics and subtropics.
Although castor bean oil is a very popular manufacturing product and even though the castor bean looks like it might be edible, it’s actually highly toxic. This is because raw castor beans have a high level of ricin, which is a type of poison that prevents cells from making proteins.
Thankfully, castor bean poisoning isn’t that common, but it is possible, particularly if you eat a large number of castor beans. It’s estimated that a healthy adult would need to eat approximately 4 to 8 castor beans in order to get seriously ill.
But since the ricin in castor beans could kill you, it’s probably best to avoid eating castor beans, regardless of the quantity you consume.
17. American Bittersweet
American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is a fairly common type of twining vine that is found climbing its way up trees, fences, trellises, and other structures throughout deciduous ecosystems in North America.
It has small oval-shaped leaves and small flowers that form in clusters. Eventually, these flowers give way to small orange or red-colored fruits.
However, the American bittersweet has a bit of a controversial history of toxicity. While some sources maintain that the American bittersweet is not toxic to humans, it’s been suggested that the plant’s fruit was used by a number of Indigenous communities to induce vomiting.
Either way, we do know that American bittersweet is highly toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. So, if you’re adventuring with your pet or pack stock in tow, be mindful of these potentially dangerous fruits on the trail.
Daffodils are a common sight around manicured gardens and in the wilderness during the spring months. However, they are not a good trail snack because they are highly toxic.
All daffodil varieties contain a chemical called lycorine, which is present throughout the plant’s flower, stem, and bulb. In fact, the bulb of the daffodil has the highest concentration of lycorine, which is known to cause nausea, abdominal pain, and even liver damage.
Since daffodils are so distinctive when in bloom, it’s unlikely that someone would mistake them for a different kind of edible flower. The problem with daffodils arises before they bloom. Because daffodil bulbs can look like wild onions, some people have mistaken them for onions, which is problematic.
Thankfully, there is a way to tell daffodil bulbs and onions apart. First and foremost, daffodil bulbs don’t smell like onions. But, even in the absence of this olfactory clue, daffodil bulbs also don’t tear into layers like onions do. So, proper identification is key when searching for wild onions.
19. Deadly Nightshade
22. Virginia Creeper
Sometimes called the five-leaved ivy, the Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a type of decorative ivy that’s originally from the eastern and central parts of North America. Although it can sometimes be confused with poison ivy, Virginia creeper has clusters of five leaves—not three.
While Virginia creeper might not cause the same kinds of rashes as poison ivy (more on that in a bit), it’s not exactly a harmless plant.
In fact, the Virginia creeper has berries that look a lot like purple grapes but that contain oxalic acid. This can cause joint pain, as well as vomiting, diarrhea, and other similar symptoms when consumed.
Cotoneaster refers to a large genus of flowering plants that are technically part of the rose family. These plants were traditionally found throughout the temperate regions of Europe, Africa, and Asia, though you can now find them in North America.
Almost all cotoneaster plants feature berries and leaves that contain cyanogenic glycosides. Even though cotoneaster plants generally have low levels of these compounds, consuming too many berries can lead to kidney, liver, or heart failure. This is particularly true among young children.
Additionally, cotoneaster berries are believed to be toxic to dogs. Although a dog that eats these berries will usually only experience mild digestive problems, eating large quantities of berries could lead to severe health issues among canines.
24. Bitter Almonds
A mainstay of Christmas and yuletide celebrations around the world, the mistletoe is a type of hemiparasitic plant that originated in Europe but has since been introduced to North America. But while the mistletoe is quite festive, it’s not a great snack to eat with your eggnog.
There are a number of active substances in mistletoe, including tyramine and phoratoxin, which can cause vomiting, nausea, and cardiac arrest.
But there are actually 1,500 different mistletoe species, each of which has varying levels of these toxins. This makes identifying particularly poisonous mistletoe plants very difficult.
In fact, it’s believed that American mistletoes are less toxic than their European counterparts. But with all those potentially nasty side effects to worry about, it’s probably better not to taste the mistletoe at your next holiday gathering.
26. Poison Ivy
27. Manchineel Tree
Holly is another Christmas symbol that’s known for being a festive addition to any wintery gathering. Like mistletoe, however, holly is also highly toxic, so it’s best as a decoration, rather than as a holiday snack.
While holly is a beautiful decorative plant, the berries of the holly plant genus Ilex (there are about 480 species in the genus) are all toxic. They contain a number of different compounds, including theobromine, rutin, quercetin, and chlorogenic acid.
For the most part, ingesting holly berries leads to diarrhea and vomiting, though they can also lead to intestinal problems. Eating even a few holly berries can lead to health problems in children. Thankfully, the prickly leaves of the holly plant usually dissuade kids from eating these berries, but it’s important to keep in mind while hiking or enjoying a yuletide celebration.
Although elderberry is a delicacy and one of the most commonly used medicinal plants on the planet, it’s technically toxic. Yep, that’s right. When eaten raw, elderberry’s bark, leaves, and berries can cause health problems.
That’s because elderberries naturally contain lectins, which are a type of protein that can cause stomach issues. Additionally, elderberries contain cyanogenic glycosides which can cause cyanide poisoning, just like in bitter almonds.
The good news is that cooked elderberries don’t contain these compounds, so it’s generally not a problem to eat the berries with proper preparation. Either way, the bark, branches, and leaves of elderberries don’t lose their toxic compounds when cooked, so hikers should avoid eating these during their travels.
30. Wild Cherry
Last but not least on our list, we have the wild cherry (Prunus serotina). Also called black cherry, the wild cherry tree is a deciduous tree that’s found throughout the Americas.
While it shares part of its name with the tasty cherry that many of us enjoy, the wild cherry’s leaves are highly toxic. The wild cherry tree leaf contains hydrocyanic acid and cyanogenic glycosides, which can release cyanide when ingested. This can be fatal if eaten in large quantities.
Fatalities associated with wild cherry in humans aren’t very common. However, livestock and pets are common victims of the wild cherry due to the fact that they sometimes eat the tree’s poisonous leaves. Therefore, hikers should keep a close eye on their pets while venturing down the trail.
How to Identify Common Poisonous Berries (North America Edition)
What to Do If You Eat a Toxic Plant
Hopefully, your astute plant ID skills and cautious approach to foraging have prevented you from accidentally eating a toxic plant that looks like food. In the unfortunate instance that you do eat something that’s not edible, it’s important that you quickly get to medical care.
Should you come into contact with a poisonous plant while hiking, do the following:
- Stay Calm – It might sound cliché, but no one has ever achieved anything from panicking in an emergency.
- Take Photos – If you can, take photos of what you ate. Doing so may help with plant identification by poison control or the hospital. Do not bring the berries, fungi, or plants with you to the hospital. Bringing these substances to the hospital can be dangerous for you and medical providers.
- Get To Medical Care – Even if the amount of toxic berries that you ate is relatively small, your best bet is to get to medical care as soon as possible. Everyone reacts differently to different substances, so you want to be around medical professionals if you were to have an adverse reaction to a toxic plant. The faster you can get to medical care, the better, but don’t over-exert yourself or get lost in the process.
- Provide Supportive Care – Should you be tasked with caring for someone in the backcountry that is having an adverse reaction to toxic berries or plants, you may need to provide supportive care to that person. Doing so is only appropriate for people with prior medical or wilderness medicine training. Supportive care in these wilderness situations usually means conducting a complete patient assessment and coordinating an evacuation.
The best treatment for toxic plants is prevention. In an ideal world, caution would prevent you from ingesting a toxic plant. When in doubt, don’t eat an unidentified plant. You’ll thank yourself later.
Toxic Plants FAQs
Here are our answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about toxic plants: