There’s a funny thing about fruit gardening. In theory, it sounds like this calm, genteel, grandmotherly-type of hobby where we stand out in the grassy field with a basket of blackberries in the warm sunshine, wearing straw hats and talking about the crumpets we’ll have with our tea. Quaint, delicate, picture-perfect.

Well, I do have a straw hat. And I like blackberries. But typically, my fruit gardening is a lot more physical and less photogenic. I sweat a bit. And the brambles scratch me up. My arms get sunburned. And sometimes, the berries try to kill me.

Yes, for real. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the number of “culinary” garden berries that are actually poisonous if picked at the wrong time, cooked incorrectly, or eaten with the seeds. Fruit gardeners everywhere, beware – the beginning in a series of posts on poisonous “edible” berries!


My mom thinks elderberry syrup is a miracle cure for basically any kind of sniffles, headache, sore throat… you get the picture. And sure, I’m willing to give cautious endorsement that it certainly doesn’t seem to cause any harm, and I even went out and planted one in my own berry patch.

However, I started doing some more research AFTER I planted, and now I’m kind of conflicted. Turns out the elderberry has some sneaky strings attached, notably a danger of cyanide poisoning if eaten raw or underripe. Scientific opinions are still debating how significant that risk is (the National Library of Medicine has an article about elderberry toxicity that says a lot of things, but if I could paraphrase I’d say it concludes, we aren’t really sure).

Yes, I’m a responsible adult, and I can just be careful not to eat underripe or undercooked berries. However, there are little kids around, and I’m not super comfortable with their decision-making skills, if you know what I mean…

Fortunately, most people won’t be tempted to eat enough fresh elderberries to cause a problem – these berries can be tart, to put it mildly – but still, it’s something to be aware of. Bottom line: DON’T EVER eat raw elderberries. Better safe than sorry.

Oh, and one more note of interest: The elderberry and the pokeberry are NOT THE SAME THING. If you happen to be walking through the woods and see a juicy purplish-black berry, don’t just make assumptions – and don’t EVER trust a blog to tell you the difference between “safe” and “not safe.” (Not even my blog). Go with a trusted source, like an extension office (and to get you started, here’s a link to PennState Extension’s article on pokeweed identification).


First off, let me point out this photo. Is this the wonderberry, or its serial-killer cousin the deadly nightshade? Do you know? Does anybody?

There’s a whoooole lot of confusion online about this little berry. Sunberry? Wonderberry? Garden Huckleberry? Garden nightshade? How many of these plants are there? Did Burbank really hybridize this plant, or did he just stumble across a previously unrecognized variety? All that is a subject for another post, but for now, ladies and gents, understand one thing: by whatever name you purchase this plant, these things are nightshades. Yes, some nightshades are considered staples (like the tomato. Who doesn’t love pizza?), but they ALL should be viewed with caution. Even tomatoes have poisonous leaves and stems. This is a consistently dangerous family of plants, and although when prepared properly there may be some edible material there, you have to tread cautiously… soooo cautiously. For the solanum family, to which the wonderberry belongs, berries tend to have nasty alkaloids that can, with the worst cousins, straight-up kill you; with the less-toxic cousins, they’ll still make you pretty darn sick. Even for the “edible” strains, you have to take care to pick only fully-ripe berries, and then you still have to process them correctly before consuming.

Yes, the “wonderberry” may be safer than most other cultivated solanum members – but which are you really growing a wonderberry, or one of its relatives that it’s commonly confused with? Are you sure? Is your seed company really sure? Even worse that confusing it with the edible cousins, the wonderberry looks a LOT like its relatively that are waaaay more dangerous. I had planted the wonderberry in my own garden, with full intention of processing the berries – but when it started to grow, I realized how similar it looked to some of its evil-twin relatives that grew wild along the fringes of my gardens. Since I have a daily audience of small children that spend lots of time running through the garden and see EVERYTHING I do, I couldn’t in good conscience go forward with picking and eating the wonderberry. Instead, I gave them the poisonous berry talk, and I let the wonderberries die out on the vine. Someday, I’ll test them for real — but not until the current crop of kids has grown up and understands the difference between cultivated and wild berries.


If you aren’t certain what you’re looking at, find a reputable source. Don’t go to random internet blogs – let’s be honest, most of them are written by content mills, and even if there is a “real” person behind the blog, they might be bluffing, or just plain ignorant. You just can’t be certain. While nurseries tend to be very knowledgeable, you should also keep in mind there’s a conflict of interest whenever anyone is trying to sell you something. What you SHOULD do is talk to a professional – your local extension office might not have the staff expertise, so be careful there, but your state extension university should have some articles online. Do your could-I-die-from-eating-this research from websites with a “.edu” website address.

Bottom line? If in doubt, DON’T. If you have kids, give them a serious talk about what poison is and why they should never eat berries that haven’t been approved by an adult (and tell them that crazy Uncle Freddie doesn’t count). If you have neighbor kids, consider something tactless and gaudy and obvious, like posting skull and crossbones signs around the plant. Even if technically it’s not your fault when kids trespass and raid your garden, there’s such a thing as liability for an “attractive nuisance.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>