Red Berries – Edible or Not Edible?

Here are 21 types of red berries I have encountered in backyards and hiking trips in Manitoba, in the heart of the Canadian prairies. How many of them have you seen?

6 red berry photos
How many of these red berries do you recognize?

Also Read: Grapes or Virginia Creeper – How to Tell them Apart, How to Harvest Stinging Nettle

I am a outdoor plant enthusiast who enjoys foraging for food. I’ve been fortunate to have many teachers and many opportunities to learn about wild edibles. But I am not a botantist, biologist or plant scientist. These are my casual observations provided in everyday language. This article is intended to be a starting point for your investigation into red berries you may find in your travels. It is not intended to be conclusive and complete information on what berry or fruit you’ve stumbled upon and whether or not you should eat it. I hope these photos and brief descriptions will allow you to narrow down your options so you can google and research your find more carefully.

Remember if in doubt – do not eat!

Wild Strawberry – Edible

These are one of the first red berries you can find in the wild. They are tiny versions of the strawberries you get at the store, but oh so much more flavourful. In May/June you can see the tiny white flowers along the side of hiking trails throughout Manitoba.

wild strawberry flower
The flowers and fruit of wild strawberries are one of the first of the season.

By mid to end of June, little red berries will follow. They are tiny, but they taste amazing. Look low down to the ground for the serrated, three lobed leaf.

wild strawberry
Tiny, tasty wild strawberries are a nice treat while hiking.

Silver Buffaloberries – Edible

Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) is the most common buffaloberry shrub that I’ve seen, but there are several others (Canada Buffaloberry and Round Leaf Buffaloberry) that have slightly different leaf shapes and colour. This one has soft fuzz on the top surface of the leaves that makes them appear silver.

silver buffalo berry
Silver oblong leaves and clusters of red berries with freckles.

Buffaloberry shrubs grow 9-16 feet (3-9 meters) in dry, poor soil of grasslands. Branches have very sharp thorns making it a great barrier. Yellow flowers appear in June (a male and female plant are needed) and clusters of edible red berries with little dots or scales appear in August to fall. Their tart taste mellows after the first frost hits them. I waited until after first frost to make Buffalo Berry jam.

buffalo berry jam
Buffalo berries taste better after frost and can be used for jam.

The berries (actually drupes or stone fruit) also have a substance called saponin. It makes them taste bitter and soapy which is why this plant is sometimes called soapberry. The cool thing about saponin is that when mixed with water it can be whisked into foam. Apparently, many Native American tribes made a frothy dessert by beating hot water, buffaloberries, and sugar together. I haven’t tried it – but maybe this year!

Silver buffalo berry branches have sharp thorns!
Impressive spikey thorns make picking these berries interesting!

Nanking Cherries – Edible

nanking
Nanking cherries – the longer you wait to eat them, the sweeter they’ll taste.
nanking cherries
Nanking cherries – Edible. These cherries do not have a long stem.

These are nanking cherries and they are  edible and delicious (if you don’t mind a little tartness). They grow on bushes that can grow 6 feet tall x 6 feet wide. The blossoms are pink and like other cherry blossoms, will bloom in early spring, before any leaves have come out. The leaves are deeply veined, pointed and light green. The cherries grow on almost non-existent stems and are about 1/2 inch. They’re bright red and ready to harvest mid to end of July. The longer they’re left on the bush, the sweeter they get.  They’re excellent for juice and jelly.

Tartarian or Bush Honeysuckle – Not Edible

These are a bush honeysuckle and they are NOT edible, which is just as well because they’re not tasty at all!

tartarian honeysuckle
These paired red or orange tartarian honeysuckle berries are not edible.
orange tartarian honeysuckle
Sometimes the berries are yellow or orange.

Bush honeysuckles are dense, upright  shrubs that can grow 3 to 10 feet.  The leaves are a bluish-green and grow in alternate pairs.  The small fruit, which goes from green to orange to red, grows on stems in pairs. They ripen in late July and can be quite showy. Not even the birds like these honeysuckle berries.

honeysuckle
Honeysuckle berries look pretty, but not even the birds will eat these.

Wild Plums – Edible

When I stumble across wild plums, I get excited – they usually pop up in the most unexpected places. Here I am happily picking wild plums.

getty picking wild plum
Happy picking some wild plums we stumbled across.

Wild plums grow either as a single stem tree or as a multi stem shrub. They can grow anywhere between 5 to 25 feet high often near river banks.

The plums are round to oblong and go from green to yellow/orange to red by mid to late August. They’re about 1 to 1 1/2 inches around.

inside of plum
Wild plums have a tart red skin, sweet yellow flesh and a flat pit just like you’d find in plums you buy at the store.
wild plum in tree
Plums bloom early in the spring and so the amount of fruit on the tree can vary greatly if pollination was disturbed by frost or cold.

Bittersweet Nightshade – Not Edible

Do not be tempted by this cherry tomato look a like. This is bittersweet nightshade and it is toxic to people, pets and livestock.

nightshade
Bittersweet nightshade – not edible.
nightshade
Clusters of pretty little red jeweled fruit. Not edible.

These gorgeous jewel colored fruits are impressive looking but not edible. Here in Manitoba, we find it most often in sunny spots along forest edges and riparian zones. It is a perennial vine that snakes its way through the understory. It’s purple flowers with yellow centers, leaves and red jeweled fruit look a little like tomato plants. One might even mistake them for “wild tomatoes” or the cutest little cherry tomatoes ever – but they’re not! Do not eat these, they are toxic to humans. The purple flowers bloom mid summer and the fruit forms towards the end of summer. You may see green, orange and red fruit at the same time.

Pin Cherries – Edible

Pin cherries are tiny little cherries. The cherries are little red dots on the end of a long stem. They have a big pit relative to their size and are quite tart.

pin cherries with leaves

Pin cherries are edible.  They’re found across the prairies in parks, along river banks and in other undisturbed areas where there is plenty of sunlight.  Pin cherries grow on straight, small trees or tall shrubs which are between 15- 30 feet. The bark on young trees is smooth, with a dark reddish-brown, varnished appearance. Pin cherries grow on long stems and are quite small at about 1/4 inch. They are bright red and are very tart with a big pit, so not great for eating as is, but great for juice or jelly. They’re at their peak end of July.

American Bittersweet – Not Edible

American bittersweet
A beautiful site when all the leaves are gone, but these American bittersweet berries are not edible.
american bittersweet
Do not eat these American Bittersweet fruits.

American bittersweet is a perennial vine that wraps itself around trees and any surrounding shrubs. It can grow as long as 15 to 20 feet long. In the fall, the orange to red fruit capsules pop open exposing the red berries inside. They’re very pretty and make lovely decorations, but they are NOT EDIBLE.

The American bittersweet is native to North America, but the copycat look alike – the Asian bittersweet is an introduced invasive species. The Asian bittersweet is very aggressive and actually chokes and kills trees with its vines. For the difference between the Asian and American bittersweet read The Spruce.

Bunchberries – Edible, but Meh

When you head into forested areas, especially where there are conifers (eg. spruce, fir & pine) you’ll come across a common ground covering of bunched berries or little white flowers (early summer). These are called bunchberries, so called because of the tell tale bunch of berries you’ll find clustered together in the center of the plant. Often you’ll find a large grouping of bunchberries. bunchberry cluster

This relative of the dogwood, only grows 10-20 cm tall. You’ll see a whorl of 4-6 leaves at the top of the plant with the flowers and later the red berries clustered on a stem in the center. The berries are edible, but they’re not that remarkable. They have a sweet, non-descript mealy flavor and are very seedy. In fact one interpretation of the Cree name kawiscowimin is “gravel inside” cause that’s what it sounds and feels like when you eat several. They are not commonly harvested although they do have a high pectin content – beneficial for jam making. They’re also high in Vitamin C – so if stuck in the woods and concerned about scurvy – go ahead and munch on a bunch.

Here are the white flowers you might see May to early July and a closer look at the leaves.

bunch berry flower

Often, you’ll see a few bunch berry plants together. You’ll find berries end of July and August.

bunch berries
Little bunches of red berries.

Evans Cherries/Sour Cherries – Edible

Tasty Evans Cherries a big sour cherry for our northern climate.
Evans cherries – tasty sour cherries but not too sour when fully ripe.

These are Evans cherries and they are edible and delicious.  This is a popular sour cherry that was cultivated in Edmonton, AB.  They grow on trees that can reach 15 feet.  The leaves are a dark green with serrated edges.  The cherries are 3/4 inches, bright red and tart.  If you’re patient, the cherries will get sweeter and turn a darker red when left on the tree longer.  They are typically ripe end of July, early August.  Because of their bigger size they’re excellent for pies, baking, canning, freezing, juice or jelly.

It’s not likely you’ll find them in the wild – only in Manitoba backyards.

romance cherries
Some of the Romance Series of sour cherries from the University of Saskatchewan turn darker than Evans cherries and are somewhat sweeter.

The University of Saskatchewan has also introduced some new varieties of sour cherries – the sweetest sour cherries you’ll find. The Romance cherry series includes varieties like Romeo, Juliet, Crimson Passion, etc. The cherries are bright red to dark red and ripen at various times from July to August.

Red Baneberries – Not Edible

Do not eat red baneberries. Don’t eat the white or dark blue ones either! They’re very toxic. The berries are so shiny and polished they look fake, like costume jewelry beads. But do not let kids play with them, just admire from afar. The berries are on a long stock that shoots above the bushy plant that has feather saw-toothed leaves. The plant is knee to thigh high.

Red Bane Berry
Glossy red bane berries are very toxic – don’t even touch them.

Crab Apples – Edible

Some crab apple varieties are very tiny and while technically any crab apple or ornamental apple is edible – you probably don’t want to eat them. They are hard, dry and tart. It’s best to leave them to the birds.

crab apples
Crab apples can be even smaller than this and bright red. Technically edible, but not very tasty.

There are hundreds of different varieties of crab apples, all grow on trees ranging in 16 to 35 feet high. Some are much sweeter and juicier than others, but all cause a little bit of puckering. People who use crab apples use them for juice, jelly, syrup and cider. Colors vary, but some are definitely bright red.

Hawthorn – Edible

In Manitoba, we’re most likely to find the Fleshy Hawthorn, a deep burgundy red fruit that looks very similar to an apple but much smaller. The berries hang in clusters.

hawthorn fruit and thorn
These hawthorns will deepen in colour in autumn and the thorns will turn silver/grey like the rest of the bark, making them more difficult to see.

Flehsy hawthorn is a small tree or medium sized shrub up to 20- 25 feet high. The haws (the fruit) go from green to red and are ready to pick in late fall. Some are much fleshier than others. Like most members of the apple family, you should not eat the seeds inside the haws as they contain a form of cyanide. Simply spitting out the seeds or avoiding them like you do with most apples is perfectly fine. On a positive note, hawthorn contains flavonoids with heart-friendly antioxidants, tannins, high pectin (good for jam making) and vitamins B and C.

The most common use for hawthorns are jelly, juice and dried for tea blends.

hawthorn
Can you find some of the super sharp thorns in this photo?

A very cool but dangerous feature of hawthorn branches are the thorns. They are long (2-3 inches) and extremely sharp. BE CAREFUL. Can you find them in the photo above?

Rosehips – Edible with Caution

If you roam about the prairies in June and early July, you’ll see the beautiful pink blossoms of prairie roses in ditches, road sides and edge of forests. Those blossoms fade and turn into fruit that holds the seeds of roses. That fruit is what we know as rose hips.

prairie rose
Pink prairie roses can be found in ditches, meadows and along forest edges across the prairies end of June early July. They are the beginning of rose hips.

These blossoms are edible and make a lovely garnish on salads. They can also be used to make a beautiful light pink jelly!

At the end of the summer, the blossoms will be replaced by rosehips, the fruit of roses. The rose hips contain seed with little fuzzy ends. These fuzzy ends can irritate your fingers, tongue and throat and should not be eaten. Only the red flesh of the rosehip that surrounds the seeds should be eaten.  Fresh, rose hips are known for their high vitamin C, E and K and B complex content. Rose hips are also rich in pectin (good for making jams and jellies), beta-carotene, bio-flavinoids, selenium and manganese.

rosehips
When eating fresh, only eat the red outer portion surrounding the fuzzy seeds inside.

In ancient times, rose hips were used to improve the immune system, blood pressure and digestive system. Today, they’re more commonly, used for jam, jelly, tea, syrups and wine.

Sumac – Edible

The variety of sumac we have in Manitoba is Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) – not the poisonous sumac found in the Southern US that contains urushiol, the same toxin as in poison ivy or the Staghorn Sumac more commonly found in Eastern Canada. If you have any doubt – just walk by and don’t touch!

smooth sumac
Smooth sumac growing on the banks of the Red River. The bright red tops are very striking in the fall when everything else is more muted.

Smooth sumac is an airy shrub that grows 3-16 feet (almost tree like). It grows in open, dry places such as roadsides, forest edges and clearings. It likes lots of sun.  The leaves turn scarlet in the fall. The flowers are tiny green clusters, which turn into red berries in late summer and may stay on during winter.

Sumac berries are reddish, grow in pointy clusters and have a zingy lemon taste when picked at their peak, typically in late summer or early fall. They can be dried as a spice or crushed and soaked in cold water, then strained for “lemonade”.

Raspberries – Edible

Whether in your yard, a back lane or in the middle of the forest, chance are you’ll run across some delicious raspberries if you’re out and about late July, early August. Raspberries are absolutely edible – they’re sweet with a hint of tart and loved by many.

They’re compound berries which means what we consider one berry is actually a whole bunch of little berries fused together. They’re also a member of the rose family, so expect some prickles on the stems of the plants which can grow 3-5 feet high (1 to 1.5 meters).raspberries

You’ll find the best berries hidden underneath the leaves on old growth stems, so be sure to move the branches a little and turn yourself upside down!

Red Currants – Edible

These waist high bushes produce strings of small red fruit about 1/2 cm in diameter. You’ll find 5-8 or 10 little red berries along the green stem. Once again, it’s edible but tart. They’re great in pancake, bannock, cake and especially jelly.

red currants
Red currants are edible but a little tart.

High Bush Cranberries – Edible

If you’re out and about in prairie forests in the fall you may see and smell these berries, they’re high bush cranberries – called that because, well the bushes are high! You’ll need to gently bend the bush towards you to pick this edible fruit. But be warned they are tart and bitter and when you cook them at home they will smell like stinky feet – seriously! In fact, if you’re walking in a forest and you smell a nasty smell – like someone left their used sports equipment in a sealed bag for a week – you know that high bush cranberries are nearby. Sounds appealing, right?! BUT, once you get past that, the final cranberry jelly you get from these little stinkers is AMAZING. Many enthusiasts will set up a cooktop outside when making their annual cranberry jelly.

high bush cranberries
High bush cranberries are best picked after frost in fall. They’re edible but tart and bitter until you turn them into tasty cranberry jelly.

Dewberry – Edible

You’re walking in a boreal forest (spruce and pine trees) and look down to see what looks like a lonely raspberry on a very short plant. The leaves look like a raspberry leaf but the berry is pointing up and there’s only one. You’ve just found a dewberry and it is edible.

dewberry
Dewberries grow low to the ground and point up. They are edible.

Bearberry or Kinnikinnick – Edible

Here’s another ground cover you’ll find along sandy or rocky areas in coniferous or mixed wood forests. We call it Kinnikinnick or bearberry, but others may know it as mealberry, sandberry, mountain-box, fox-plum, hog-crawberry or barren myrtle. The Latin name is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.

kinnikinnick
Bearberry or kinnikinnick is edible, but the berries are mealy with a pit inside.

It grows low to the ground and forms mats that spread out. The leaves are dark green, tough or leathery, somewhat glossy and thick with smooth margins arranged alternatively on the stem. They stay on the bush year-round, so you’ll find bearberry under the snow too. In spring, you’ll see small clusters of white-pink flowers that hang down from the tips of branches. They’re a pretty bell shape with a frilly edge (almost like blueberry flowers).

The berries are edible, but not especially tasty. They’re mealy with a pit. It’s not the type of berry you’d pick to bring home for pancakes! The leaves are high in tannins and can be used for tea said to aid kidney and bladder infections (please research this carefully before using it for this purpose).

kiniknik
A low ground cover on sandy or rocky areas in mixed forests.

Wintergreen – Edible

I love finding wintergreen, especially in the winter. You’ll find them in dappled shade in the acidic soil of coniferous or mixed forests. The beautiful pinkish red berry has a phenomenal taste that will instantly remind you of gum or toothpaste labeled wintergreen. And then it will dawn on you – this is what that gum and that toothpaste are named after – there is actually a wintergreen plant!

The berries stay red and the leaves stay green all winter.
wintergreen hand
Don’t eat too many of these berries at once. They have an aspirin like ingredient that can be toxic in larger amounts. I collected these for adding to tea blends – a little goes a long way.

The red berries and tough leaves of wintergreen plants stay all winter long buried underneath the snow. That’s a good indication that the berries, while edible, aren’t very juicy – they’re almost styrofoam like. While they are edible, you won’t want to collect a whole bunch. We like chewing on one or two while hiking just for the minty flavour. In fact, eating too many wintergreen berries is not good because they do have a compound very similar to aspirin and too much may cause problems. The leaves can be used in herbal teas in small amounts, they make a minty and slightly bitter tea.

Important Notes:

Please don’t rely on this information as your only source of information. It’s just a starting point to help you identify what to research more.

Always follow the rule – if you’re not 100% sure what you’re looking at – do not eat it! Not even a little bit. 

Harvest ethically and respectfully. If you plan to take more than a handful, be respectful of nature and harvest ethically and responsibly so that the plant can continue to thrive, birds and animals will have plenty of fruit left for them and the land around the plant is not damaged.

Enjoy wild edibles, but do it safely.

First Published – August 2012. Last edited August 2021

Getty is an outdoor enthusiast who loves backcountry camping and foraging for wild edibles. But first and foremost, she’s a Professional Home Economist, who takes food safety seriously. She wants you to enjoy wild edibles – but only when you’re 100% confident you know what you’re eating. When she’s not foraging, Getty is a speaker, frequent media guest and writer sharing tips and recipes to build confidence and teach skills on how to use whole seasonal foods. She is the author of several recipe books, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener. Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. 

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5 Comments

  1. Just noticed what I think is a Nanking Cherries bush in my overgrown backyard. (I bought the house three years ago and I am having fun discovering new plant varieties every year! The old owners really liked planting obscure plants!) I was able to identify it by the deeply ribbed and jagged, deep green leaves, and by the flaky bark with horizontal notches every few centimeters all around the branches. Unfortunately, the yield isn’t great – only about 10-20 fruits on a single bush. Next year I’ll try to take care of it and see if I can increase the yield. My two daughters and I each had a couple of berries, and they were pretty good! Tart, but I like that. I hope I’m not up all night on the toilet, though!

    1. Hi Joel,
      That’s exactly how we discovered our nankings too! Hidden in a ton of overgrown brush. Once we cleared it out and gave them more light and growing room, they flourished and we had some great harvests. We’ve since had to cut and trim them back, but they’re making a comeback! I enjoy their tartness too. Good luck with them in the next few years.

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  3. Thank you for this. I did take a chance this morning while walking my dog by eating two berries as I passed by. They just looked so irresistible with the sun shining behind them. (There is a fairy poem that ran through my head about whether one was friend or foe.) Certainly not wise, but part of me thought I had seen something somewhere that said they were edible. Well it is 6:00 pm and though I know sometimes it can take up to 18 hours for an effect, I seem to be alive and now somewhat relived with your post and the actual knowledge of what it was that I ate. Therefore I will now be going back to pluck a few more of these delicious beauties. Yes, I did not mind the slight tartness. Again, thank you. (My advise to others… do not try this at home, be SURE of what you are ingesting : )

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