There are some wonderful wild edible plants scattered across this continent. Pick up a foraging book or take an edible plant class and you’re in for a surprise. You’ll start to see these edible plants everywhere. And then, as you dig a little deeper, brace yourself for another surprise. Hunger can make anything start to look like food. And when the nasty wild plants look appetizing, getting caught in the wild without food becomes an even more dangerous scenario.
One Native American name for this ubiquitous shrubbery translates into English as “suicide bush”. Rhododendron is a typical under story shrub through much of the eastern United States. The shiny green leaves look like bay leaves, which could be a dangerous substitution to spice up your emergency stew. Although the leaves of this shrub would be deadly, if brewed into a strong tea, it’s unlikely that anyone would consume these foul smelling leaves by accident.
Be exceedingly careful of wild legume family members. Sure, we eat many different species of peas and beans from across the globe, but these are the edible ones that are cultivated. Plenty of wild “bean” relatives still exist, and some of them are quite deadly. Few are as bad as the seeds of wisteria (Wisteria spp.). Inside the velvet covered bean pod lie several flat, dark colored seeds. All parts of the plant, including the seeds, contain a glycoside called wisterin which is toxic if consumed.
The pretty red berries of the American holly (Ilex opaca) can certainly look inviting. You might be tempted to taste them, especially after you see the birds gobbling them down. But remember that birds can tolerate poisons that would kill a human. Holly berries contain a number of toxins, and while fatalities are rare from holly consumption, there have been some documented deaths.
There may be no shortage of these shiny red berries in the fall and early winter in the eastern United States. Numerous native and non-native species of dogwood (Cornus spp.) can be found growing in the under story of forests or in transition zones between forest and field. The red berries of dogwood are eaten by birds, but should be avoided by people.
Several species of buckeye tree (Aesculus spp.) grow throughout the central and eastern United States. These native trees have nuts that are surprisingly poisonous. Buckeye nuts have a shiny brown shell, which is surrounded by a dull textured husk – similar to the outer husk structure of hickories (Carya spp.). Break the tree nut open, and you’ll find a solid, whole nut meat inside a buckeye. This is in contrast to the complex shape of the hickory nut meat, which resembles the shape of walnut or pecan internally. Also, be careful that you don’t confuse buckeyes with chestnuts, as chestnuts have a shiny nutshell under an outer husk.
These small shiny black berries are one of the most dangerous look-alikes, resembling blueberries to the unobservant. There are several species of nightshade (Solanum spp.) growing wild throughout the U.S. Just a handful of the bitter berries can contain deadly amounts of toxic alkaloids, among other compounds. If your “blueberries” don’t taste sweet, or don’t grow on a woody shrub, chances are good that you’re eating a dangerous nightshade instead.
7. Wild Cherry
Wild cherry trees (Prunus spp.) can produce a tasty cherry fruit, but these same trees can also be a source of toxicity. The wilting leaves of cherry develop a high concentration of cyanide. While humans aren’t normally drawn to the odor, livestock frequently eat this dying foliage and end up dying themselves. The cherries themselves also contain cyanide in their pits, so don’t try to grind those up for flour or any other human foods.
The pokeweed plant (Phytolacca americana) has some of the juiciest and most appetizing looking berries of late summer and early fall. But don’t be fooled by this alluring look. These berries are animal food, not people food. Migrating birds, deer, and many other animals can chow down on these poisonous berries with no ill effect. Humans aren’t so lucky. A handful could kill a child, and a little more could take out an adult.