Friend or Foe? – Identifying berries

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Now towards late summer, our hedgerows are full of colourful fruits and berries, so I thought it would be a good time to focus on some of the common edible and non-edible berries you might find. This blog post is a guide to help with identification – NOT for collecting edible berries to eat! There are many ‘lookalikes’ so it’s important that we remind ourselves about the possible poisonous berries you may encounter with your groups and teach how to recognise them. Read on for my activity tips and ideas.

Top tips

There are no hard and fast rules when identifying berries, so it’s important to always be cautious and observe carefully.  Use a good foraging/plant guide and look for all these key identifying features to give you confidence:  do berries grow as single fruits on stalks, clusters or ‘umbrellas’? ; their shape – round or oblong?; their colour – orange, orange-red, bright red, blue black, shiny or dull black? Remember berries change colour as they ripen. Look at the whole plant; leaf shape is an important identification feature, also whether it is evergreen or deciduous.  Are the berries growing on a scrambling shrub or a thorny tree?

There are many clues and questioning yourself is important – take the time to double check key identifying features. If in doubt take a picture and ask an expert!

Activity ideas

I-spy spotter challenge: A fun introduction for younger children is to create a photo guide of the commonest berries growing in your area – fortunately, many school grounds have boundary hedgerows to explore. Working in small groups invite them to be a mouse or a blackbird; how many different berry snacks can they find (6-8 different species works well). <4 – you’ll be hungry; 4-6 – you just make it; 7+ – you are a survivor! Emphasise to look to match shape and colour but not pick.

Common hedgerow berries include: blackberry, *holly, rosehip, *ivy, hawthorn, blackthorn (sloe), elder, honeysuckle, *yew.  You may also find: rowan, guelder rose, whitebeam, *black bryony, *lords and ladies, *deadly nightshade.                                                *highly toxic / poisonous

Friend or foe? There are many poisonous lookalikes!To help gauge your group’s knowledge (and it’s a great icebreaker activity too) or to review learning after the above spotter challenge, ask them to match up laminated photos of different coloured berries with the correct tree/shrub by their leaves. Make two sets of photos for group challenges. Importantly, this activity teaches visual recognition using colour and shape; the round, bright red berries of holly, rowan and hawthorn look similar but their leaves are very different. Extend: sort into poisonous and non-poisonous groups

Why are berries so colourful?: Berries that are red and black are particularly attractive to birds, who get a tasty snack, whilst the plant gets to spread their seeds through their droppings. When ivy berries ripen to black and holly to red, it’s a good time to observe songbirds such as blackbird, thrush and wood pigeon feasting on these treats. The yew trees scarlet berries – its seed is poisonous – are safely eaten by birds. A reminder that what animals can eat does not indicate what humans can safely eat! Sit quietly and observe birds feeding on berries – what are their favourite berries/colours?

Further reading:

Field Studies Council – identification guides:  A guide to hedgerows and Guide to foraging plants.

Richard Mabey – Food for Free, Harpercollins Publishers.