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How to Identify Common Wild Berries

Timely tips on how and what to look for when picking wild berries, and spotting their look-alikes.

One of summer’s greatest traditions is the wild berry harvest. No matter where you live in the United States, there’s a plethora of wild berries just waiting for you to pick them.

Each region has its own set of berries – salmonberries in the Pacific Northwest, for example, but there are three types of berries that almost everyone in the United States can harvest wild. Those include blackberries, raspberries and elderberries. If you’d like to pick your own, read on to find out what you need to know about these three berries and their lookalikes!

Blackberries and Their Lookalikes

ripe and unripe blackberries on the bush with selective focus. Gardening, agriculture, harvest concept
Blackberries
Dewberry - Pacific Blackberry
Dewberries Image courtesy of Pollinator, Wikimedia Commons

Blackberries and their lookalikes, dewberries, are two of the most commonly harvested wild berries, and with good reason. These fruits are wonderful for anything from pies, cobblers, to jam and preserves. You’ll find blackberries along the edges of wooded areas, and sometimes out in the open, although frequently mowed fields are unlikely to have mature plants.

Blackberries are also popular because, even though they have many lookalikes, none of those lookalikes are dangerous. In different parts of the United States, you may run into olallieberry, marionberry, boysenberry, loganberry, and dewberry. Most of these berries are native to the Pacific Northwest, with the exception of dewberries, which grow throughout the eastern half of the United States.

To tell the difference between dewberries and blackberries, first look at the structure of the shrub. Blackberries produce tall canes, while dewberries are a trailing bramble that rarely exceeds two feet in height. The berries on a dewberry bush are also a little larger than blackberries.

Raspberries and Their Lookalikes

Red Raspberries
Red Raspberries

Black and red raspberries are one of the most popular berries in the United States, ranking third right after strawberries and blueberries. Black raspberries are often confused with blackberries, but it’s easy to tell the difference between the two. Blackberries always have a white core, while black raspberries are hollow, blackberries are also larger, shinier, and they appear later in the growing season. The red raspberry has fewer noteworthy lookalikes than blackberries and black raspberries.

Thimbleberries
Non-Toxic Thimbleberries

However, if you’re foraging in the Western or Midwestern United States, you’re quite likely to find non-toxic thimbleberries. The easiest way to tell the difference between these two berries is by looking at the plants’ stems. Raspberry plants have lots of small to medium thorns, while thimbleberries are thornless. You can also sometimes distinguish between thimbleberries and raspberries by looking at the berries themselves. Thimbleberries look a lot like thimbles (hence the name) – they’re flatter and wider than raspberries. Birds love thimbleberries!

Elderberries and Their Lookalikes

Elderberries
Elderberries
Mildly toxic pokeberries

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are another native species that grow throughout the United States. They are commonly used to make a syrup to help treat colds and flu, but some pickers avoid them because there are a couple of dangerous lookalikes. However, if you know what to look for, it’s very easy to safely harvest the elderberries you need (but they can’t be eaten raw).

When harvesting elderberries, always look for large, flat clusters of dark blue or purple berries. If you spot berries that look similar to a long cluster of grapes, you may be looking at pokeberries, which are mildly toxic.

Pokeberries are also roughly the size of a pea and they’re somewhat flat. Elderberries are much smaller and they’re perfectly round.

Water hemlock berries look very similar to elderberries, and they’re highly toxic. Fortunately, you can check the stems of these two plants to tell the difference between them. Elderberries are a woody shrub while water hemlock is herbaceous. In other words, if the stems aren’t covered in bark, don’t pick the berries! Water hemlock always has green or green and purple stems.

Here are some images that highlight a few more differences:

It’s important to note that elderberries need to be cooked before eating. Raw berries, bark, and leaves of the plant are also known to be poisonous and cause stomach problems. The flowers can be eaten raw and can be fried into fritters in this delicious recipe.

Close up of elderflower, the flower of black sambucus (Sambucus nigra).
Water Hemlock Stems and Flowers - Image courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons
Toxic Water Hemlock Stems and Flowers – Image courtesy of H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

There are few better ways to spend bright summer mornings than harvesting wild berries. Just make sure that you know what you’re picking so that you can enjoy the harvest to its fullest!

These cards can help you identify wild edibles!

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental and green living topics. Her article on woolly worm caterpillar folklore appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.

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Brett Utley

Crazy i been making my mom hemlock tea for a decade now no wander she looks so old.

Andrey

wow for 3 years I thought I was eating blackberries but it turns out they were dewberries

Jane

The berries I’ve found are not raspberries, blackberries, nor their lookalikes. They are smooth, dark (purple/black) and perfectly round. They grow on a lush, green plant, which I mistook today for bindweed. Can I submit a photo? I live in dry, eastern Colorado where berries in the wild, here on the plains are uncommon. They were growing on the north side of a large equipment shed which within the past couple years had imported soil.

Alanah

Thanks for the post. Heaps of great information. A tasty superfood.

Joshua

Just picked some wild blackberries today. I’m in Maryland

lani

there is a red elderberry that is native in alaska. It is sometime said to be poisonous if eaten raw but the joke is that you can’t keep them down long enough to be poisoned. (emetic)

jo slow

Show us the SASKATOON Berry used by natives to make pemmican….tnx.

Patricia Hilliard

I thought that Elderberries were poisonous if they were still white–unripe. This was not mentioned in the article.

Kenneth rosevear

What about bilberries

Kenneth rosevear

What about bilberries we have them in upper Peninsula Michigan

Kenneth rosevear

What about bilberries We have them In upper Michigan

Marthann Kohl-Fuhs

what about choke-cherries?

Belinda

There is another berry that resembles elderberry. It comes from a plant that has a flat broad flower head just like elderberry. It is the devils walking stick plant. It is not as bushy as elderberry and has a woody and spiny (very sharp spines) along its bark. This is a poisonous look alike. Beware – the list here is no where near complete!

LaBic

We’re already seeing the wild blackberries ripening here in the Pacific Northwest (Western Washington, USA). This seems like a few weeks early this year.

john Tucker

I was a bit disappointed to not see huckleberries mentioned. I know of 3 different huckleberries here in British Columbia, and understand that there are 5-6 more varieties of huckleberries (not blueberries).
Maybe something for another article some other time.
thanks
jt

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