Gardening Poisonous Plants

Garden Myth: If You See Birds Eating Berries, They’re Edible

I can recall my father telling me this as a child. And just recently heard it again on a news report on TV, of all places, but it simply isn’t true. (Sorry, Dad!)

Birds can digest many berries that humans can’t safely eat, even poison ivy berries. Dogs and cats (especially the latter) are even more sensitive to chemical compounds found in berries than humans and the choice of berries they can safely eat is even more restricted. They can be poisoned by grapes, for example. 

Berries to Beware Of

Here are some examples of berries that are edible to birds, but poisonous to people and many pets:

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) has attractive but poisonous berries. Photo: http://www.i-flora.com

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Baneberry (Actaea spp.)
Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.)
Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
Boston ivy (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.)
Chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach)
Clivia (Clivia spp.)
Common ivy (Hedera helix)
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
Cuckoo pint (Arum maculatum)

All parts of different daphnes, such as the February daphne (Daphne mezereum) seen here, are poisonous, including the berries. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Daphne (Daphne spp.)
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)**
Euonymus (Euonymus spp.)
Garden huckleberry* (Solanum nigrum)
Golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta)
Herb-paris (Paris spp.)
Holly (Ilex spp.)

Not all honeysuckles have poisonous berries, but choosing safe ones is complicated, so it’s best to treat them all with suspicion. Photo: Ben, http://www.flickr.com

Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense)
Jasmin (Jasminum spp.)
Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum)
Lantana* (Lantana spp.)
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majus)
Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella)
Mayapple* (Podophyllum spp.)
Mistletoe (Viscum spp. and Phoradendron spp.)

Moonseed berries (Menispermum canadense) are sometimes mistaken for grapes… with fatal consequences. Photo: http://www.toadshade.com

Moonseed (Menispermum spp.)
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron spp.)
Pokeberry (Phytolacca spp.)
Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
Privet (Ligustrum spp.)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Yew*** (Taxus spp.)

*Unripe berries only
**The berries of some species are edible after cooking.
***The berry itself is edible when ripe, but the seed is poisonous.


Here’s a good rule to follow: if you don’t know for sure a berry is edible, don’t eat it!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

8 comments on “Garden Myth: If You See Birds Eating Berries, They’re Edible

  1. Margaret

    Very good information. I gave my kids the correct information when they were small and they never ate any pretty berries (that I know of).

    Thanks much.

  2. Pyrcantha
    Hawthorn (although edible if cooked)
    Indian hawthorn (although edible if cooked)
    Arum
    Iris
    There are too many to remember.

  3. What about nandina berries? I keep seeing they’re poisonous for birds. I cut all the berries off last winter and have started cutting this seasons. But 8 don’t see it listed above. Is Nandi a safe for birds?

    • There is one case of nandina berries having apparently poisoned a flock of cedar waxwings; thousands of cases of them eating the berries harmlessly. You’re probably seen them doing so in the past without harm. Birds eat nandina berries in their native Asia and not case of poisoning has ever been reported. One has to wonder if there wasn’t something odd about that one case. For example, had the berries been treated with a pesticide or other poison? Had something else killed the birds? Note that the berries were undigested: you’d think they would have had to be digested to have killed birds, as any poison is in the seeds (like many berries, the seeds contain a small amount of cyanide, but the seeds (usually) pass through the birds’ digestive system unharmed).

      • Since I first planted nandinas in my Washington DC garden I have noticed a couple of dead birds every year. I first reported them to the local animal control because we had some kind of bird flu or virus going around. I worry because my dogs have been known to eat dead things (disgusting little beasts) and I don’t want them to eat a bird full of cyanide. I have nandina domestica and a smaller hedge type, I forget the specific name.

        Thank you.

      • Don’t forget birds die fort all sorts of reasons. Even people who have nothing like nandina find them. I know I do.

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