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How can I identify edible berries/fruit in the wide and avoid the poisonous varieties? Is there a general guideline that can be followed or is each plant specific?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Eating berries and mushrooms is not recommended since there is no general pattern to identify poisonous ones (unless you're an expert on that topic). Even having a book with pictures of edible berries can be tricky as some poisonous ones are disguised as their edible counterparts.

Plants, on the other hand, should not be edible if the sap is milky. Milky sap often means poison. Take, for instance, Euphorbia which can look like cacti and trick you. So check the sap.

With insects it's easier. Not eating the flashy coloured, smelly or slow unwary moving ones is the rule of thumb here.

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Following up on this answer, it is unwise and dangerous to test any wild edibles unless you are absolutely certain of their species. Some mushrooms can kill you before you get back to the parking lot, others will ruin your liver or kidneys or cause unbelievable pain. If you are an expert in one region you are not is a different region, so play it safe and find one before tasting anything. Happy hunting. – Dangeranger Jan 25 '12 at 20:18
@Pureferret I only know enough to be dangerous on this topic, not enough to help others be safe, which is why I never eat anything I don't bring into the wilderness. It's my recommendation that we enlist a real "wild edible" expert to improve this post. Let me know if you need some help, I'll try to track one down. – Dangeranger Jan 26 '12 at 0:22
I'd downvote if I could: "Plants on the other hand should be edible if the sap is not milky" -- no way! There are plenty of poisonous plants without milky sap. – Jason S Feb 1 '12 at 3:56
@JasonS Completely agree, I think I know what Thomas means - milky sap can be a rough guide - but this doesn't mean that the plant is edible if the sap is clear at all! – berry120 Feb 2 '12 at 23:37
Milky sap is no indicator either way: wild lettuces and common milkweed are safe; some Lactarii are poisonous, some are safe; dogbanes are not to be eaten. – Josh Caswell Jul 10 '12 at 0:13

The best advice is not to unless you are very, very sure.

Having said that, and just for fun, assuming you are in a chronic survival situation with no choice, this article describes how to test if a plant is edible.

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the article is really useful! shame I cannot favorite an answer... – Akabelle Jul 19 at 8:03
  1. Get a good book, with full color illustrations. I can't find a link for one, but you want quality equivalent to the Audubon full color field guides.
  2. Do a few field runs in the area you plan on being in with someone experienced before you try to eat the foliage.

Of course, everything depends on risk. If you've been lost for four or five days and you're starving, assuming non-bitter, non-burning = okay may seem more reasonable. However, if I'm found on the brink of starvation, I generally don't want the response personnel to also have to deal with whatever I may have poisoned myself with. Seems a lot like doubling down on death.

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This is a great answer! For plants (not mushrooms), there are many plants you can eat, and for many genera you can take it for granted that any species in the genus will be edible. For a given area, it really doesn't take a lot to learn a reasonable percentage of the flora, both the especially edible and the especially toxic. – Oreotrephes Aug 25 '13 at 0:07

In general, worldwide this is very hard to predict unless you're an expert in the subject (and therefore likely wouldn't be looking for advice on this page!) There are some clues, like plants with milky sap tend to be poisonous - but applying these in a general context is almost always a bad idea since your life can depend on it.

The best you can do is to read up, get a good book etc. that focuses around the area you're hiking to - get one as specific as you can, with good, clear descriptions and pictures. This will enable you to have at least some degree of confidence - though obviously unless you're 100% sure I wouldn't risk it.

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It is plant specific AFAIK.

But i heard somwhere, that if you taste poisoned berries or fruit it will taste strange - because of evolution - whoever can detect poisonous berry by taste will not eat it and will live longer :-)

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I know from chemistry that basic compounds will often taste "soapy or bitter," but I have not heard that poison berries or fruit will taste "strange." Information on acids, bases, and taste.I would strongly recommend against taste-testing unknown foods. Take somebody with you who has already been in that area, and has harvested fruit/plants in that area, and follow their advice. When in doubt, don't eat it! – Clare Steen Jan 25 '12 at 17:54
It is NOT a solution to try out on short hike, but if you are in big trouble that can be helpful – SergeS Jan 25 '12 at 20:24
Can you be more specific about "strange" or is it really a gut reaction and you need to be in tune with your body to know if something is not edible. For instance, on my cushy civilized diet, plenty of perfectly edible things taste "strange" due to modern agriculture shaping our experience. – bmike Jan 31 '12 at 21:20
Don't know how describe it propertly (bad english). As i kid i accidently eat some poison berry (only one - and not sou poisonous) - it tasted for me like plastic + ash – SergeS Feb 2 '12 at 10:43

As other answers say, don't just try it.

A good negative indicator is if it irritates your skin. I've read that particularly with berries, if you crush some and rub some of the juice on a patch of skin and let it sit for a while, some berries will cause irritation, which is a good indicator not to eat them!

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