Monday, November 14, 2011

Berries, deadly and nice

I wish I knew more about berries. I adore jam, of that I'm certain - but other than the obvious, I never know which berries to pick and which might kill you. It's a pity because they seem to be everywhere this year.

In my garden is a sizeable holly, its berries are toxic though I never knew that until today. Not that I've eaten any, but then it wouldn't occur to me to eat rose-hips either, or the berries of hawthorn and mountain ash - all of which, evidently, you can. Wild honeysuckle is fine too - though some care is needed with modified varieties.

For my fiftieth birthday I was given some Keepers Tipple, a combination of whiskey and whinberry, traditionally made from berries picked on the Blorenge near Abergavveny - very nice it was too. Also in Wales, mountain ash berries were once brewed into an alcoholic liquor called diodgriafel - which perhaps explains why it never caught on.  Elderberries are still used today, and the sloes we collected last week will make for fine gin and jam this Christmas.

But the trouble with collecting more good ones is that I'd get mixed up with the nasties. The berries of the yew (or at least the seeds within) can be deadly, and plants such as bittersweet, spindle and butcher's broom are regarded as highly toxic. So too are ivy, dogwood, lily of the valley and deadly nightshade.

The real the problem, of course, is that I got all that from a book and the Internet. In the field, I'd not know one from the other - or at least not be certain. And even if I was, I'd worry a fox or rat had laced them with Weil's disease.

So I think I'll stick to old favourites - and the winter fruits compote from Sainsbury's. I suppose it leaves more for the birds, and to brighten the woods, as they have done especially this autumn.


  1. It's the same with wild mushrooms... I'm too scared to risk a taste in case I get the wrong one. Much easier to forage for them in a supermarket.

  2. Interesting post and subject matter. We have a lots of sloes this year and other berries are plenteous, always a sign of a hard winter to come.

  3. Having grown up after the war with rosehip syrup as a source of Vitamin C, I tried making some when our children were small. It was not a success, so the birds have had them ever since. I gather the prolific harvest is more a sign of ideal flowering conditions last spring than any harbinger of what is to come. We'll see....

  4. Hello Mark:
    Foraging for food always sounds like fun but the inherent problems and pitfalls are very offputting. In Hungary, there are mushroom inspectors where one can take one's gathered specimens and have them looked over, but as for berries, we are not sure about that. Rose hips are regularly on sale here in our local market, but as for what to do with them, well, we are no experts in that regard!