1. Pokeweed Pokeweed is found throughout the temperate United States, which means there’s plenty of the stuff in PA. It develops berries in long, densely packed strands of fruit, which are dark purple when ripe and white-green when underripe. They are exceedingly toxic; only a few berries are fatal to the very young or very weak, and even healthy adults can be fatally poisoned by consuming several of them. Be careful, because the strands of fruit look a little bit like purple grapes. Shutterstock
1. Pokeweed Pokeweed is pretty easy to identify, and looks sort of alien and dangerous, which makes sense, because it is. The plant sports vibrant dark reddish-purple stems, from which both the leaves and berries sprout. Interestingly, the leaves and young shoots of the pokeweed are edible, and are an old Appalachian specialty, but they still contain the toxin. To eat the plant, it has to be boiled at least three separate times. Shutterstock
holly leaves and berries
2. Holly There are several species of holly that can be found in Pennsylvania, including both wild and imported decorative plants, but one thing most species have in common are hard, bright red berries. Do not eat these, please: they’re not typically fatal, but will give some nasty gastrointestinal distress if ingested. Shutterstock
European Holly
2. Holly You can recognize the European holly, which is most associated with Christmas and widespread as an ornamental, by its distinctive leathery, shiny, dark leaves, complete with angry little spines around its edges. Likely it came to its association with Christmas because it was a fundamental part of the pre-Christian Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place in mid- to late-December. Some of the Saturnalia traditions ended up embedded in Christmas, and holly came along for the ride. Shutterstock
yew berries
3. Yew You know the yew, even if you (yew?) don’t know the name. Native to Japan and other cold parts of East Asia, the yew is an evergreen tree that sports soft, appealing-looking red berries. It’s hardy and sculpts well, which makes it a common choice for gardens, and there are tons of them in Pennsylvania. Here’s what’s interesting about the yew’s toxicity: the whole plant is toxic, full of alkaloids that can cause organ failure, except for the actual flesh of the fruit. Shutterstock
3. Yew Unfortunately, the fruit consists of a very thin amount of jelly-like flesh surrounding a seed, and that seed is super toxic, so popping the fruit in your mouth is considered an extremely bad idea. The Japanese yew is so toxic that even fallen leaves maintain their danger; animals, both pets and livestock, become sick from eating this stuff on a fairly regular basis. Shutterstock
California Horsenettle
4. Carolina horsenettle Another nightshade, the Carolina horsenettle isn’t restricted to the Carolinas. It can be found in disturbed areas—near roads and railroad tracks, that kind of thing—all over Pennsylvania. It produces fruits that look a little bit like its cousin, the tomato, only green when underripe and yellow when ripe. Don’t be tempted to see if it tastes like a tomato, though, because its fruit contains natural defenses that can cause problems for the gastrointestinal, circulatory, and respiratory systems. Shutterstock
California horsenettle
4. Carolina horsenettle The Carolina horsenettle has a bunch of really excellent nicknames, including “devil’s tomato” and “tread-softly.” It also happens to be a pretty ferocious weed that shows resistance to most major herbicides, including glyphosate (Roundup). Birds seem to like eating the fruits, but birds are very weird and actually eat most of the berries on this list. Shutterstock
White Baneberry
5. White baneberry Found throughout eastern North America, including much of Pennsylvania, white baneberry is sometimes known as “doll’s eyes.” That name comes from the otherworldly design of its fruit, which are pure white with a black spot, sprouting from a fuschia stem. Unfortunately, the baneberry is incredibly poisonous, especially to the cardiovascular system. Eating baneberries can literally stop your heart. Shutterstock
White Baneberry
5. White Baneberry You can recognize the plant because most of it looks kind of strange. The flowers look like spiky lavender pom-poms; the stems are green, but purple where they meet. You want to avoid even touching this plant, despite its attractive appearance. Mere contact has been reported to cause blisters and skin irritation in some people. Shutterstock
Bittersweet Nightshade
6. Bittersweet Nightshade The nightshade family gets a bad rap. Sure, a bunch of them, including this one, are dangerous if consumed, but the family also gives us the tomato, potato, and eggplant. Unfortunately, the bittersweet nightshade is not one of these friends. It sprouts beautiful, delicious-looking crimson red berries, but the berries are toxic enough that it’s not even recommended you touch them. Shutterstock
Bittersweet Nightshade
6. Bittersweet Nightshade The bittersweet nightshade has, like a lot of toxic plants, some history as a traditional medicine. As with any traditional medicine, scientists have tried to figure out what’s going on with the toxin in bittersweet nightshade, to possibly use it as a medicine. But studies have been limited by the fact that lab mice keep dying whenever they get a dose of the stuff. Shutterstock
Common Moonseed Fruits
7. Common Moonseed Be careful of this one. It produces small bunches of dark blue berries which look like something between a purple grape and a blueberry—both delicious fruits that grow all over Pennsylvania. But the moonseed fruit is very dangerous, full of an alkaloid toxin that can be fatal. Luckily, the taste of the moonseed is described as disgusting, in direct contrast with its friendly lookalikes. Wikipedia
Common Moonseed
7. Common Moonseed The name of the moonseed comes from the shape of the seed, which, as you might expect, is in the form of a crescent moon. That’s actually an ideal indicator of whether the delicious-looking wild berry you found is a moonseed or a grape: grapes have spherical seeds. Birds don’t seem to care very much, as many bird species gorge on the fruits. Wikipedia
Mayapple plant
8. Mayapple Not an apple at all, the mayapple is actually in the barberry family. It looks like a tiny tree, with a single stem and a canopy of large leaves, under which a fruit ripens from green to yellow. The plant contains podophyllotoxin, which has medical uses but is also dangerous when consumed. That said, the mayapple is a delicacy in much of Pennsylvania: when it’s fully ripe and soft, it’s sometimes made into a jelly. The green fruit, though, is much more commonly found in the wild, because animals tend to swipe any ripe fruit. And underripe mayapple is very dangerous. Shutterstock
Mayapple plant
8. Mayapple The mayapple is a really distinctive-looking plant. It has only two leaves, which are huge and function as an umbrella. The fruit is described as having a lemony flavor, giving it the nicknames of “ground lemon” and “wild lemon.” It also probably helps that when the fruit is ripe enough to eat, it’s wrinkled and bright yellow. But various sources note that one should be very, very careful with preparations; even ripe mayapple jelly can be dangerous if you eat too much. Shutterstock
poison ivy berries
9. Poison ivy You might be wondering: Who would possibly eat poison ivy? Well, in late summer, poison ivy develops large clusters of small berries, starting green and ripening to an appealing off-white. These are, as you might expect, not to be eaten. They contain the same awful oils that cause rashes when humans interact with the leaves of the plant, so you can only imagine what a bad idea ingesting them would be. Shutterstock
Poison Ivy
9. Poison Ivy Poison ivy is not, despite its name, an actual member of the ivy family. Instead it’s in the cashew family. Pennsylvania provides a perfect environment for poison ivy: it loves the edges of wooded areas, doesn’t tolerate extreme elevation, and can’t handle particularly dry soil. Pennsylvania’s woodsy suburbs are a natural fit for poison ivy. Shutterstock