Recently I’ve written about some obscure brightly colored fruits many think are poisonous. Beautyberries and firethorn are edible and birds love both. Don’t let the latter fool you, because you can’t trust the birds.
Now that leaves are beginning to fall, their persistent fruits and those from evergreen plants are more noticeable. I am a fan of many ‘out of the mainstream’ fruits, but don’t experiment unless you know what you’re doing. You can’t assume wild or ornamental fruits are safe because birds or wildlife eat them.
All hollies are poisonous. They contain cyanide producing compounds as well as other toxic substances. We have numerous holly species in our landscape and many readily escape cultivation. One beautiful one is called winterberry holly.
Like all hollies it has separate male and female plants. This means that some plants will be loaded with fruit while others have none.
Most people know hollies are poisonous but few recognize this one as a holly species because plants lose their leaves in the fall. This exposes clusters of beautiful tempting red berries. These fruits are toxic to people, livestock and pets. Winterberry holly’s most potent toxin is a chemical called theobromine. It causes severe nausea and diarrhea, but death is unlikely.
Some hollies have red berries and some have black ones, but none can be consumed by humans. They do draw birds. Usually birds don’t eat them until they’ve been softened by numerous frosts. This likely makes them more palatable.
Another common landscape plant with bright red berries is Nandina, also known as heavenly bamboo. This shrub is commonly used in local landscapes and also escapes into adjacent areas. Some types grow to be over 10 feet tall and in full sun can produce copious fruit.
Nandina is only mildly poisonous and the toxins are in the seeds not the berry pulp. This is small consolation as far as I’m concerned. I still suggest people and pets should not eat these fruits.
Some sources list Nandina fruits and foliage as edible, but the tedious rinsing necessary to remove bitter compounds renders them low on my foraging list. Berries usually persist late into the winter before birds finally run out of other options.
Another bright red inedible fruit in our local landscape is the cotoneaster. The two main species are rockspray and bearberry. Neither is considered edible, nor are they dangerous. They will give you an upset stomach and a little nausea if you eat very many. However, they are quite bitter and it is unlikely you would care to do that if other options are available.
Lastly, another plant with attractive red berry-like structures is the yew. These soft hollow balls are actually cones and not fruit. All parts of the plant are poisonous but the seeds in these unusual soft cones are highly toxic. The genus name for yew is Taxus, which means toxin, but many birds eat the seeds with no problems. Keep children and pets away from them, since they can be a curiosity.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.