Cuisine Survival Skills

The Hungry Games: Is That Wild Berry Safe to Eat?

The Hunger Games is not the only situation you could find yourself in where knowing how to tell an edible berry from a poisonous one could save your life. And since The Hunger Games is set in the future, I like to think that Katniss Everdeen actually learned all of her legit arena-surviving tactics from Queer Grylls: An Apocalypse Survival Blog For All. While nightlock berries may not exist in real life, there are plenty of non-fictitious berries out there that’ll make you literally shit yourself to the grave. So listen up, future Katniss, because this yet-to-become legendary homosexual survivalist is going to teach you a thing or two about what you should and shouldn’t be putting in your mouth.

Katniss chows down on a graham cracker.
Katniss demonstrates that a graham crackers is a safe alternative to poisonous death-berries.

I found this video on YouTube of big ol’ manly man, Mykel Hawke, an ex-Army Officer turned TV personality, famous for his series Man, Woman, Wild where he teaches his wife everything she needs to know to survive in the wilderness (I’m rolling my eyes as hard as you are, Katniss, believe me). In it, he presents a mnemonic to help us remember a general set of rules for the relationship between a berry’s colour and its, well, likeliness to kill you! It goes:

White and yellow, kill a fellow.
Purple and blue, good for you.
Red… 50/50, could be good, could be dead.

Kind of handy, I’ll admit. However, this is an apocalypse survival blog for all (not just big ol’ manly men), so I wanted to create my own Queer Grylls version. Mine goes like this:

Yellow or white, you’re gonna shite.
Purple or blue, have a good chew.
Pink or Red, well, it’s up to you, Fred!

Now that you’ve spent five minutes memorising that, let me tell you there are exceptions to these rules (ironically, nightlock berries for instance). This mnemonic is meant as a general guide only, and the risk of whether or not to chow down on those mystery berries is ultimately up to you. The obvious and most reliable way to know if a berry is poisonous or not is to become familiar with the specific types of berries and plants you can find in your environment. Fortunately for me, I live in a country where not many things will kill you (besides the price of alcohol – ouch), and wild berries are plentiful and generally non-poisonous. But what about the rest of you who aren’t so lucky enough to live in a forager’s utopia like Sweden?

Foxface dies after greedily consuming a handful of nightlock berries.
Not clever enough, Foxface. Should’a subscribed to Queer Grylls.

The most important rule when determining if a berry is poisonous or not is “if in doubt, spit it out!” (or don’t put it in your mouth to begin with). The tiny amount of nutrition that a berry contains is not worth the risk. Also, never assume a berry is safe to eat because you saw another animal eating it. Different species have different tolerance levels to plant toxins so it’s not a reliable indicator.

A Little More on Appearance

As the Queer Grylls mnemonic suggests, your safest bet is to go for the blue and black-coloured berries. In general, these, along with aggregated berries (such as blackberries and raspberries) are edible. Approximately 50% of red-coloured berries will also be okay. A general rule here is to aim for red berries that grow individually (these tend to be okay) as opposed to red berries that grow in clusters (these tend not to be okay). Green, yellow or white berries should be avoided at all costs (unless you can confidently identify a particular berry as safe) as up to 90% of them could be considered poisonous to humans. Does the berry have a spine, milky sap, bitter smell or soapy taste? If so, spit it out and back the fuck away. These are all signs of a diarrhoea explosion waiting to happen.

Other Ways to Test a Berry

If you still can’t say for certain whether or not to give the go ahead on a berry, test its juice on your forearm. If five minutes pass without any irritation, swelling or redness to the area, try the juice on your lips. Again, if there’s no reaction, test it on your tongue. Finally, chew the berry (without swallowing) for 10-15 minutes before spitting it out. If the berry has a bad taste, this is usually a sign that it’s a bad type of berry. But if it tastes fine and no symptoms occur, try swallowing one and wait 20 minutes (the time it usually takes for your body to start displaying symptoms of poisoning). If after that time you’re in the clear, eat the berries slowly and monitor for any signs of late-displaying symptoms.

Reminders

  • Test one type of berry at a time so you can be certain to attribute any symptoms to a particular berry.
  • If you show any signs of nausea, diarrhoea, convulsions, dizziness or blurred vision, try to remove any poison from your stomach by inducing vomiting, and then dilute any remaining poison by drinking a hefty amount of water (or milk, if you happen to live on a post-apocalyptic cow farm). Of course, seek medical attention ASAP if available.
  • Make sure to rinse any berries in clean water that may have been exposed to herbicides or pesticides before eating. Symptoms of chemical poisoning are often identical to that of poisonous berries.

Berries are a huge risk and the payoff can often not be worth it. Only in extreme situations should you rely on the rules outlined above. As I have mentioned, there are many many many exceptions to the rules, and a mistaken berry identity could have dire consequences. Unless, of course, that was your plan all along…

Katniss concocts a devious plan to use nightlock berries to kill Cato.

In the future, this post will be officially endorsed by Katniss Everdeen.