Nature has given us a wide variety of vines that produce berries and it is very common to see birds and animals eating these berries as winter food. Because there are so many varieties of red berry it can be hard to identify them, especially in the winter months when many vines have lost their leaves. But don’t despair; using your powers of observation and your cell phone’s camera you can begin the process of identifying any red berry that interests you.
Check the Source
First you need to know whether the berries are found on a tree, a shrub, or on a vine. While this might seem obvious, sometimes red berries stand out in a clump of shrubbery so dense that it seems impossible to determine which plant they are on. Take some time to isolate the berries and figure out what type of shrub they grow on.
Look at the Leaves
Check to see if there are any leaves left on the vine. Some vines keep their leaves all winter long. If there are no live leaves, check to see if there are any dried leaves still clinging to the vine.
Notice the size, shape, and color of the leaf. Are the edges serrated or smooth? Is each leaf single or are there two or more leaves on a single stem? Is the leaf fuzzy or smooth?
If there are no leaves, look at the vine, shrub, or tree itself. How big is it? Does it have thorns? Is the main branch twisted or straight? Is the bark smooth or textured? If textured, is it bumpy, or ridged? Is the bark rough and dry or is it supple? Make a careful note of all the different characteristics of the plant itself.
Check the Color, Size, and Shape of the Berries
Next you need to look carefully at the size and shape of the berry. Is it round, oval, or disproportionate? Are the berries smooth or are they made up of clusters of smaller seeds, like a blackberry? Do the berries grow together in a cluster or is there a single berry on the end of a stem? Sometimes rose hips or dried cherries can be mistaken for berries, so pay close attention.
Now, decide on the berries’ exact color. Of course, they are red, but what shade of red? It can make all the difference in the world to a proper identification. When deciding on a shade, It helps to think of something to compare it to. Are the berries a deep blood-red like a garnet? Are they an orange-red, similar to a tomato? Are they a cherry-red, or are they more of a pink-red like a rose bud? Carefully note the shade of red you decide is the closest to the berries you’re trying to identify.
You will want to pay attention to the location of the plant as well. is it growing near other plants of the same type or does it seem to be the only one of its kind in that area? If it is a vine, does it stand on its own or is it growing on another tree or plant that supports it? Is it near water, or is it located in a field? And what United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zone is it in?
Additionally, look carefully at any animals you see eating the berries off the vine, and note what kind of animal it is. Birds and animals won’t eat berries that are poisonous to them, so that information can help narrow down identification of the berry.
Take a Picture
Finally, take a photo of the berry, as well as the vine or tree and its surroundings using a camera or a cell phone. This will allow you to take it to an expert for a positive identification.
Find a Resource
Once you have a picture and a detailed description of the berries you want to identify, you need to locate a resource to help you. If you have a handbook of wild plants in your area, that is the best place to look. You may be able to find a picture of your berries online at one of the United States Department of Agriculture’s recommended sites or your local university’s extension center’s web page. If not, try checking your local library or searching the Internet for a picture and article that matches your plant’s characteristics. If you need further help, you can find experts at a university extension center, at a landscaping company, or nursery.
Never eat a berry you find in the wild until you have received an expert identification, no matter how sure you are that you know what it is! Many berries that wildlife can eat may still be poisonous to humans. Many berries that look very similar can be very different, so do not take any chances.