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Purple Berries: They Look Alike...

But are they both good to eat? Can you tell them apart? Can your child tell them apart? 

Grapes Pokeberries

The berries on the left are grapes. Of course, they are good to eat! The berries on the right are pokeberries. Eating them can make you sick. 

At this time of year, the poison center gets a lot of calls every day about children who ate purple berries. Usually, they picked pokeberries growing in their yards. The tell-tale clue is purple stains in and around the mouth, on their hands, and on their clothing. 

To a child, pokeberries look like grapes: clusters of purple berries hang from stems, usually at a child’s level. Adults can easily tell pokeberries from grapes by their red stems, which don’t look like woody grapevines at all. 

Pokeweed is a shrub with multiple red stems. Individual plants may be a few feet tall or adult height. In the spring, young poke leaves are cooked as “poke salad”; leaves must be boiled and drained twice to be eaten safely. During the summer, clusters of white flowers turn into green berries. By August, many or most of these berries have become shiny and purple. The plants grow from deep tap roots which are hard to dig up. 

Children who eat a berry or two are not likely to develop symptoms. Eating several berries, though, can cause a lot of stomach distress: pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Adults have eaten the roots, mistaking them for medicinal plants. Serious gastrointestinal problems have occurred, including bloody vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and low blood pressure. 

Pokeweed will die back in the frost. It’s difficult to keep it out of your yard because of the deep root. How can you prevent children from eating pokeberries?

  • The best way to keep very young children safe is to watch them closely outdoors.

  • Consider digging up pokeweed plants or cutting them down, though that might be difficult when the plant is large.

  • If you find pokeweed in your yard, you might consider keeping it cut down when it reappears next year.

  • Children should be taught never to eat wild berries unless they first check with an adult.  

If your child eats pokeberries, rinse out his or her mouth and give some water or milk to drink. Then, call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222. The specialist in poison information will ask some questions about your child and what he or she ate. Then, you’ll be told what to do. Often, watching a child at home will be enough; the poison center will stay in touch with you by phone. If emergency department care is needed, the poison center expert will advise the emergency department doctor about the best treatment.

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August 2012, The Poison Post®    
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