Plump little berries on plants look so attractive that it's hard to believe that some can be deadly. Those most vulnerable to such plants are children and animals, because the fruity-looking little berries have a similar appearance to tasty benign treats like blueberries and candy. To avoid a terrible -- possibly fatal -- mistake, it's important to know what poisonous garden plants with berries are lurking around your property.
Those vines that are creeping up your house could be spreading some dangerous substances. The University of Minnesota Extension notes that Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), which grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, looks similar to wild grapes, but the small blue-black berries are toxic. The University of Nebraska lists English ivy (Hedera helix), growing in USDA zones 5 through 9, with its black berries that resemble blueberries, as toxic. Birds can eat the ivy berries, so sometimes people assume they are safe for human consumption, but they are not.
The scent of jasmine (Jasminum officinale) makes this plant popular for yards and patios in USDA zones 7 and 8. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension lists jasmine berries as potentially fatal, noting that consumption produces digestive disturbances and nervous symptoms. Daphne (Daphne mezereum), grown through USDA zone 4, is an attractive plant, but the small green berries are so toxic that it takes just a few berries to cause the death of a small child. The plant belladonna (Atropa belladonna), meaning "beautiful woman" in Italian, lives up to its name. Growing in USDA zones 6 through 9, it produces a purplish-black berry that's sweet and delicious. Another name for this plant is "deadly nightshade," and it's among the more deadly plants known to man. The U.S. Forest Service lists symptoms ranging from delirium and hallucinations to respiratory failure. The plant is so toxic that you can absorb poison through your skin just by handling it.
Trees and Shrubs
You might think that if a tree or shrub has edible berries it should be safe, but this is not always the case. Juniper berries (Juniperus communis) are used for cooking, tea and making gin. North Carolina State University Department of Horticultural Science points out that consuming large amounts of the berries can cause diarrhea. Juniper is found in USDA zones 2 through 6. Elderberries, grown in USDA zones 4 through 8, are popular in jellies and wine and pies. While the ripe berries are safe, almost every other part of the tree is highly toxic. The Nova Scotia Museum warns that the elderberry tree (Sambucus racemosa) contains cyanide-producing glycoside. Even the unripe berries are dangerous as they can cause alkaloid poisoning. Children sometimes use the tree branches and shoots to make blow guns and can become ill from putting them into their mouths. Small doses will usually be harmless, but larger amounts may cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Beware when you clip plants from the garden to drape around the home for the holidays. You might inadvertently be bringing in highly toxic materials. Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) sprigs hung high to promote a Christmas kiss have greenish-white berries that can be fatal to adults and children, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Mistletoe is a semi-parasite that grows on evergreen shrubs and trees in USDA zones 6 through 11. Another seemingly innocent yet fatal holiday plant is holly. English holly (Ilex aquifolium), grown in USDA zones 6 through 9, and American holly (Ilex opaca), grown in zones 5 through 10, are frequently used to make wreaths or garlands. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Poison Control Center website states, "Eating more than 3 holly berries can cause severe and prolonged nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as drowsiness." Yew (Taxus spp.) branches have pretty green pine-like leaves that sport bright red, plump, juicy-looking berries. Various species of yew grow in USDA zones 4 through 7. The berries and leaves are so toxic they can cause sudden death without any prior symptoms or warning signs.
- University of Minnesota Extension: Wild and Edible Fruits of Minnesota
- University of Tennessee Woody Plant Identification Site: Parthenocissus Tricuspidata
- University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County: Toxicity of Common Houseplants
- University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service: Hedera Helix
- North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Jasminum Officinale
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Common Poisonous Plants and Plant Parts
- Plants For A Future: Daphne Mezereum - L.
- Zipcode Zoo: Atropa Belladonna
- US Forest Service: Deadly Nightshade, Belladonna, Devil’s Cherries
- North Carolina State University Department of Horticultural Science: Poisonous Plants of North Carolina
- Photo Credit Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images