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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

A Complete Wild Food Guide

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This list is not even close to complete. I've included the ones I know of that can easily be mistaken for edible plants. I strongly suggest you do your own research in this area, and a good place to start is the Government of Canada's Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System.

Make sure you know these as well:

Virginia Creeper - Poisonous

It is good to know the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) to not confuse it with Grape vines. Both have tendrils, and the Virginia Creeper has small berries the size of River Bank Grapes, and when ripe, the same color as River Bank Grapes. Grapes grow in tight bunches, while the berries on the Virginia Creeper are open bunches.

The easiest way to spot a Virginia Creeper is to notice it has five leaflets per leaf stalk, while the Grape always has one.

Never eat any part of a Virginia Creeper

virginia creeper leaves and berries sm

DO NOT mistake the Virginia Creeper for grapes. Notice the five leaflets coming from a center. The one above is in late August, and has berries that could be mistaken for grapes by the inexperienced.

virginia creeper tendrils sm

Notice that it has tendrils as well, similar to grape tendrils. Never eat any part of the Virginia Creeper. Grapes always have a single “Maple leaf” like leaf on each leaf stalk, while the Virginia Creeper has five leaflets on each leaf stalk.

Virginia creeper berries

DO NOT mistake the Virginia Creeper berries for grapes. The color of ripe Virginia Creeper berries is almost identical to River Bank Grapes. They both even have that dusty white/blue "bloom" on the fruits. Looking at both the River Bank Grape bunch picture here and this one above should show you two clear differences. One, the berries are not in tight clusters on the Virginia Creeper, while River Bank Grapes are in tight clusters. Second, the bright red stems that hold the Virginia Creeper berries should act as a "Red Light" to eating them.

Prickly Cucumber - Poisonous

The Prickly Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is another plant you should know so that you don't mistake it for a grape vine. It has a single leaf per stalk like the Grape vine, and also has tendrils. It has a very distinctive prickly looking fruit that makes it easy to identify, but only in the fall long after you would be picking Grape tendrils and leaves.

Take a good look at the pictures of the Prickly Cucumber leaves. They are a light green with a simple 5 pointed star shape. Getting to recognize them is your best defence in not accidentally picking tendril from this plant.

I often find River Bank Grapes and Prickly Cucumbers growing together intertwined. So if you are gathering Grape vine tendrils and there are Prickly Cucumbers growing around, be vigilant you have the tendrils from the right vine.

Prickly Cuc leaf

Notice the light green color and the simple 5 pointed star shape of the leaf of the Prickly Cucumber.

Prickly Cuc and Grapes

Here is an example of a Grape vine and Prickly Cucumber vine growing together intertwined. Note the sawtooth edges to the Grape leaves, and the lighter yellowish green color to the simpler Prickly Cucumber vine leaves. When gathering Grape vine tendrils, be sure you are not picking any Prickly Cucumber tendrils.

Prickly Cuc fruit and tendrils

Here is the fruit from the Prickly Cucumber with some dried up tendrils in early fall.

Canadian Moonseed (Menispermum canadense)- POISONOUS:

There is one more vine you can easily mistake for the Grape vine, and the Grapes themselves. It is the berries from the Canadian Moonseed Menispermum canadense. The berries, which can look like bunches of grapes, are deadly poisonous, so make sure you are absolutely sure you know the difference. First off, the Canadian Moonseed does NOT have tendrils on the vine. Second, the leaves have no "sawtooth" pattern on the edges, see the diagrams here to compare a Grape leaf with the Canadian Moonseed leaf. The final way you make sure is by checking the seed in the berry or grape. Grape seeds are almost spherical - ball or egg shaped, while the poisonous Canadian Moonseed berry seeds are flat with a chunk missing, giving a "Crescent Moon" shape. That is where the "Moonseed" name comes from. Before eating what you think is a Grape from a bunch on the vine, squish one with your fingers and look at the seed. To me, the seed reminds me of an empty pie shell that someone has taken a bite out of. The center area is concave - hollowed out looking like a pie shell.

Moonseed drawing

This is the seed from the Canadian Moonseed fruit. Notice the "Crescent Moon" shape. A Grape seed would be almost spherical or egg shaped. The Canadian Moonseed seed is flat, hollowed or concave in the center, and has a chunk missing. Always squish one grape in bunch you are thinking of eating and look at the seed to make sure you don't have the deadly poisonous Canadian Moonseed berry.

Compare the drawings of the Grape, Bur Cucumber and Canadian Moonseed. I've drawn them to highlight the differences in their leaves.

Vitis drawing

Notice how the edges of the Grapes leaves have a distinctive "Sawtooth" pattern. Even Grape leaves with deep lobes (see picture here) have the same sawtooth pattern. Also, with the Grapes leaves, the leaf veins follow to the points of the sawtooth ends.

Echinocystis drawing

What stands out about the POISONOUS Prickly Cucumber is the distinctive "five pointed star" shape of the leaf overall.

Menispermum drawing

The POISONOUS Canadian Moonseed has no sawtooth pattern on the leaf edges. The lobes are very widely rounded.

Bittersweet Nightshade: POISONOUS

The Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a very close relative of both the tomato and potato. Also called the Climbing Nightshade. You can see that in the nice looking little tomato like fruits that grown in clusters like cherry tomatoes. The flowers look just like Potato flowers, a nice mauve, 5 pointed star shape with a yellow center.

Since some birds eat them, they are so nice looking and the fruit looks like miniature tomatoes, they are tempting. Adding to this is confusion over how toxic they are – I've read in places that the ripe red fruits are not toxic.

So to be clear, they are poisonous. Not likely to kill, although it has happened, but they can make you sick.

Also, I have tried them and not swallowed, and can tell you they taste awful. First you think, “not bad”, then the bitter part of the name becomes clear and lingers on.

bittersweet nightshade 01

A picture of the Bittersweet Nightshade vine and leaves with a single fruit left from a cluster. Notice the shape of the leaves. Where I live they are often climbing fences and other plants and shrubs. Very common in cities.

bittersweet fruit

The fully ripe red fruit of the Bittersweet Nightshade. Nice to look at, but DO NOT eat.

Buckthorn Berries: POISONOUS

I've included the Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and other variants of Rhamnus for three reasons. One, some birds eat the berries without a problem, so some people think they are safe. They are not. Another reason is they are very common in cities, the country - everywhere. Very often seen on the edges of woods and along fences. The third reason is that I often see grape vines growing over them and have found both River Bank Grapes and Buckthorn berries side by side. When picking River Bank Grapes, you must be sure you have grapes and not Buckthorn berries, so you should get to know this bush and its berries.

The Buckthorn Berries and River Bank Grapes are about the same size, but River Bank Grapes grow in bunches on stems, while the Buckthorn berries grown right off the branches.

Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

buckthorn 01

This is the invasive Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). NEVER eat a Buckthorn berry from any of the variations. There are thorns of the ends of most branches. Notice how the leaf veins all sweep the towards the tip end of the leaf. Dogwoods (Cornus) do this as well, but if you see dark blue, black or red berries on a bush/shrub with leaves that look like this, don't eat the berries. Some birds eat the berries, but they will cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting in humans.

buckthorn 02

Note how the berries cluster around the branches. The Buckthorn is very common in cities along fences and edges of woods. They can be almost anywhere in the country where they get adequate light.

buck close

Notice the lenticels (checking) on the trunk.

European Dwarf Elderberry - Poisonous

European Dwarf Elder (Sambucus Ebulus) - POISONOUS

Do Not eat the berries from this Elder, I've included it for identification purposes only so you will know it to not mix it up with the European or American Elderberry. There are medicinal uses for this plant, but this is not a medicinal book, it is a food book.

The clusters of berries of this one look very much like the clusters of the edible European and American Elderberries, but there is one distinguishing feature: The ripe berry clusters from this plant are upright - that is, the berries are on top of the stem cluster, whereas with the edible European and American Elderberry, the clusters HANG DOWN on the stems. This plant is also smaller (it is rightly called the European DWARF Elderberry), and the leaves are different as well (narrower compared to length), but if you ever see what looks like ripe bunches of Elderberries and they are upright - not hanging down - don't eat them.

European Dwarf Elder (Sambucus Ebulus) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.

Destroying Angel Mushroom - Summer & Fall - DEADLY POISONOUS

Destroying Angel or Death Cap - the names say it all. The Eastern North American one I regularly see in Ontario is the Amanita bisporigera. There are other very similar mushrooms in other locations that go by the same names. Most, if not all the others are not found in the East side of North America, and if they are, they are very similar in most ways to the Amanita bisporigera. They are: Amanita ocreata, Amanita verna, Amanita phalloides and Amanita virosa.

This is the big scary. The nastiest killer out there, other than maybe the Water Hemlock (Cicuta). You absolutely must know this mushroom before doing any edible mushroom gathering. Not only is it deadly poisonous, but it kills slowly, painfully and quite often irreversibly. If you do survive eating one of these, expect to spend a severe pain filled time (up to a month) in hospital. Though they are saving a higher percentage of victims of this mushroom lately, the suffering and agony is still part of the process.

I have read accounts from people who have eaten these. Before they died they claimed the mushroom tasted great - one of the best they had. I know they smell fine. I have found many over the years (Amanita bisporigera), held them in my hands and looked them over and smelled them - nothing bad smelling, in fact quite nice. In other words, there is no built in safeguard in your body to warn you of a mistake. And wouldn't you know, they are a very beautiful mushroom - truly one of the most beautiful & perfectly shaped I've seen, almost seductive in their beauty. I think that is where the "Angel" part of the name must come from. Where the edible Field Mushroom has a crude look to it, the Amanita bisporigera looks like a graceful ballet dancer in comparison.

The ones in North America are white - cap and stem. The spore print is white. The gills are free - which means, the gills do not touch the stem when the specimen is old enough that the cap is open. The gills are very tightly packed. When they are young, there is a universal veil enclosing the mushroom like a soft shell. When the cap is opening, the veil breaks, and left is the Volva - the cup like bottom. However, often the soft sides of the cup are not left, and what you find is a ball like base to the mushroom. Sometimes you can see it right away. More often, it is buried under moss, leaf litter or even a top layer of soil.

Most often, you can see the remnants of a partial veil, which is a thin skin-like covering for the gills that breaks when the cap opens up, exposing the gills and leaving a ring or annulus on the stem, not far below the gills. On the Amanita bisporigera, it often looks like a wavy skirt.

They associate with trees, but often I have found them in openings in mixed deciduous and coniferous woods. You can find them in fields, but usually very close to where there are conifer trees. I have never seen an Amanita bisporigera where there isn't a conifer close by. In fact, every one I have seen has had Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) and/or the White Spruce (Picea glauca) very nearby, but I have read they can associate with other trees. Often they are solitary, or a couple in the general area. You don't see them growing in clumps at the base of stumps for instance.

There is an Amanita, the Blusher (Amanita rubescens), that is edible, but I strongly suggest not bothering, as the risk is just too great of making a mistake. Even if you distinguish it from the deadly Amanita, you could easily mistake it for the False Blusher (Amanita pantherina), which, in my experience in Southern Ontario, is more common. If you must do it, make sure you do all the research, and check very carefully that it turns red where cut - that is where the name "Blusher" comes from. You should have years of experience before you consider eating a Blusher.

Look at a lot of pictures on the web of the Destroying Angel mushrooms, and know how to identify them before doing any mushroom gathering.



Destroying Angel (Amanita_bisporigera). (Dan Molter (shroomydan) - Amanita bisporigera G. F. Atk. (17932) CC BY-SA 3.0)

Destroying Angel

All the Destroying Angels have the above in common, plus they give a white spore print.

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata is found mainly on decaying conifer wood. This is a fairly common mushroom. It looks like a couple of edible mushrooms - the Enokitake, the Honey Mushroom (Armillaria) and the Sheathed Woodtuftedible (Kuehneromyces mutabilis or Pholiota mutabilis), and it does bear a superficial resemblance to some Psilocybin mushrooms. It has the same poison in it as the Destroying Angel, so is just as deadly.


Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata. (Lebrac CC BY-SA 3.0)


The POISONOUS (Galerina marginata) growing from wood in clumps. The cap color can be quite variable. By: Eric Steinert Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


The POISONOUS (Galerina marginata) looking a bit like the Enokitake and a lot like some psilocybin mushrooms. By: Dan Molter (shroomydan) Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


The POISONOUS (Galerina marginata) looking a lot like the Enokitake here. This illustrates very well why it is so important to take spore prints. By: User:Strobilomyces GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Creator of this chart: debivort. Used under GNU Free Documentation License. Full size and source of this image here.

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