Last Updated on September 21, 2020
Ever foraged elderberries before? Elderberries are easy to find in many parts of the world, and they’re really fun to forage. Here’s what you need to know about elderberry identification before you set out on an elderberry foraging adventure.
Added bonus: Did you know the flowers of the elderberry plant are also edible and considered useful medicinally? Here’s lots more on the benefits of elderflower and how to use it to make delicious treats of all sorts.
Let’s learn how to identify elderberry plants so you’re ready to forage delicious and medicinal flowers and berries this summer!
Where Do Elderberries Grow?
Depending on where you live, you will likely find different types of elderberry plants growing wild near you. The ones used in the studies you’ve probably heard about are Sambucus nigra, which grows primarily in Europe.
The native North American varieties are Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus cerulea, and researchers believe they have similar properties to their European cousins.
Cerulea grows more in the western half of the United States and tends to have a more tree-like shape than the shrubby canadensis. Cerulea berries have a more blue than purple-black color and typically have a whitish coating of a naturally-occurring yeast, great if you want to make elderberry wine.
Remember, anytime you forage, you need to be sure to use multiple features to correctly identify a plant. To positively identify elderberry, you’ll want to consider the plant’s growth habit, bark, and the arrangement of its leaves in addition to the shape of the individual flowers, flower clusters, and the arrangement of berries.
Consult lots of photos and train yourself to notice the sometimes subtle differences between plants. Get a good foraging guide and make absolutely certain you have the right plant before sampling. I can’t tell you how many online photos I’ve found labeled elderberry that aren’t. Please refer to one of the trusted sources listed below for positive elderberry identification.
Or consider finding a veteran forager, who can help teach you to correctly identify elderberries. The Herbal Academy has an online foraging course that teaches plant identification and ethical wildcrafting practices.
A decent number of other plants out there have purple berries or clusters of tiny white flowers, and some are poisonous. So please remember: Just because you see dark berries or pretty flower sprays does NOT mean you’ve found an elderberry.
Elderberry Identification: Features to Look for When You’re Hunting Elderberries
A Woody Shrub or Tree
Elderberry is a woody shrub, not a herbaceous plant. This means you’ll see woody stems with bark. If you’ve got a pliable green plant, you haven’t got an elderberry and may have stumbled upon one of its more toxic look-alikes.
Serrated, Compound Leaves
The leaves of elderberries are arranged in a pattern called compound pinnate, which means rather than having individual leaves, like a maple tree, elderberries have compound leaves made of multiple leaflets, usually 5-11 in number.
They’re arranged opposite one another on an axis, with one on the end, attached by little to no stem (or petiole). They tend to be long and serrated. Here’s a photo:
Elderberry bark is grey, with occasional lenticels, which are raised bumps that allow gases to pass through. You can see what they look like here.
If you’re foraging during flower season, typically in May-June (though it will vary depending on your regional climate), investigate the shape of the flowerhead, which you’ll sometimes hear called an umbel or cyme.
Elderflowers grow in clusters of hundreds of tiny blossoms forming a flattened flowerhead that’s pretty distinctive. Each blossom has 5 petals and 5 stamens, which you can see in the photo below.
Berries tend to ripen at summer’s end. They’re not as easy to spot from a distance as the flowers are. Sometimes the ones the birds have already cleared will be more visible because their red stems stand out.
They typically grow in large, drooping clusters. If they don’t droop, take care, as you may have found the herbaceous dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus), which can make you very ill. They’re more common in Europe but can also be found in North America. Here’s a photo that shows how the weight of the ripe fruit pulls the cluster downward.
Are Elderberries Edible or are Elderberries Poisonous?
You’ll find a decent amount of confusion on the internet about whether elderberries are edible, especially raw elderberries. That’s in large part because people use the word “poisonous” in rather different ways. Something poisonous may merely make you feel lousy, or it may kill you. It depends on how poisonous it is.
Now, compounds in the elderberry plant can make you very sick indeed, and in large enough quantities they could be fatal. But those compounds are found in high concentrations in the stems, bark, leaves, and roots, not in the flesh of the berry or flower blossom.
The lone documented case of poisoning by elderberry responsible for this caution about elderberry consumption dates from 1983, when 11 people drank fresh-pressed elderberry juice made with leaves and branches, which contain far higher amounts of the alkaloids and glucosides that can cause problems. They felt terrible, but all quickly recovered, according to the report from the CDC.
These compounds are far less prevalent in the North American varieties (canadensis) than the European ones (nigra), according to research done at the University of Missouri.
However, some people are very sensitive to smaller amounts of these compounds, and to avoid severe stomach upset, they should consume only cooked berries, and those only in moderation. Preparations that strain out the seeds will likely be easier on sensitive stomachs. Canadensis berries will likely be less problematic than nigra berries, but it’s nigra you will find more commonly used in commercially-prepared syrups and powders. If you buy dried berries or flowers, you may find a decent amount of stem material, so be sure to pick it out.
As part of my research for my book, Everything Elderberry, I talked to experts in the field at length to understand the ins and outs of elderberry’s poisonous possibilities. To find out more about what research tells us about elderberry’s effect on health, expert growing advice, plus 62 delicious recipes for using your elderflowers and elderberries, pick up a copy of Everything Elderberry, available for preorder now. It involved months of research, dozens of interviews, and a ton of kitchen experiments. It contains information on elderberries and elderflowers you can’t find anywhere else. I hope you’ll love it!
Elderberry Identification: Learn the difference between elderberry and plants that some people might mistake for elderberry
People who haven’t done much foraging don’t always realize how many plants bear similarities to one another, and they assume if they’ve found a purple-black berry that it’s ok to eat. Not so!
Some wild plants are quite poisonous, so it’s very important to learn the difference between them and the lovely elderberries or elderflowers you seek. Here are some very detailed write-ups about some plants you don’t want to eat:
- Elder vs. Hercules Club (Aralia Spinosa) (Northeast Superfoods)
- Elder vs. Water Hemlock (Eat the Weeds)
- Elderflower vs. Pyracantha, Cow Parsley and Cow Bane (Stay and Roam)
- Elder vs. Dogwood (They’re Not Your Goats)
- Elder vs. Pokeweed (Judith Dreyer)
There are other plants one could mistake for elder if you’re really not paying attention to elderberry’s identifying features. You’ll find some additional ones to know below.
While the overall effect of compound leaves and delicate sprays of flowers is similar, the shape of the flowerhead is an easy way to identify false spirea. Notice that they’re triangles, not the round, flat cymes you’ll see on elderberry plants.
Chinese privet also has long sprays of white flowers. See images here.
Giant hogweed, as its name implies, is HUGE, and really looks nothing like elderberry except for the fact it has white flowerheads. It can cause bad burns on your skin, so give it wide berth if you see it. Here’s more on giant hogweed and its identifying features.
Two types of elderberry not generally recommended for consumption
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) in North America and dwarf elderberry (Sambucus ebulus) in Europe. Though they have been used medicinally in the past (often as emetics, meaning they make you vomit), foraging experts recommend avoiding them.
Red elderberry has some similar features to the common black elderberry. One easy way to tell them apart: The flower head and berry clusters of the red elderberry are conical (like a cone) rather than flat like elderberry, as the photos below show.
Dwarf elder is also sometimes mistaken for common elder. Herbaceous rather than woody, dwarf elder’s less-flat berry clusters don’t droop the way the flatter heads of common elderberry do. See how they aim skyward?
Tips for Finding Elderberries Growing Near You
So you’ve got your elderberry identification down, now it’s time to go out and forage! (Just please bring one of those expert guides, OK?)
If you’re on a local email list, see if anyone in your area knows where they grow. You may be surprised how many people keep tabs on such things!
Use your eyes:
As you walk or drive in early summer, keep your eyes peeled for shrubs bearing white flowers. In my area, if they’re near a house, they tend to be those common white hydrangeas (not for eating!) or if they’re at the edge of a field or a stream or along the roadside, they’re elderflowers.
We have them growing around local farms and parks and along the train tracks, though I’ve heard roadsides and train tracks tend to get sprayed for weed control. Those might not be the best choice if you’re after the health benefits of elderberries.
The flowers are easier to spot from afar than the berries, so locating and positively identifying elderberry plants during elderflower season might be a good idea if you can. Make a note to yourself (or mark on a map) about where to find it again 4-6 weeks later, when the berries start coming in.
Remember that if you take all the flowers, you won’t have any berries. But also be sure to leave plenty of both berries and flowers for other foragers and for wildlife, who like them, too!
Also make sure that if you’re harvesting on public lands, you’ll want to check what rules about foraging might apply. Always make sure you have permission, whether on public or private land.
Or… Grow Your Own!
After spending months playing with wild-harvested elderberries and talking to growers around the country, I’ve decided that getting some elderberries going in our teeny edible yard is very much worth doing, even though there are more than enough elderberries to forage around these parts.
Why? First, I learned about numerous varieties that will produce bigger, more flavorful berries than the ones I can find growing wild and I’m dying to try them. (The wild ones in my area tend to be small and lacking in flavor.)
Second, a lot of the plants here are in places I’d rather not forage from, like the railroad tracks, where it’s likely weed killer has been sprayed. Last, if the berries are right there in my permaculture garden, I can watch them closely and gather them before the birds do, or even cover them with netting to protect my harvest. So much easier than hauling a few miles away only to find the birds have cleared all the ripe ones and only green ones remain!
I’m working on a magazine article about growing elderberries, which I will link to here once it’s published. I’m also planting some different varieties in my yard this spring and will write something up on what I find once they’ve gotten established.
In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the plants and cuttings you can get from local growers or from these wonderful elderberry farms, which will ship cuttings in late winter and plants in early spring:
If you’re reading this later in the winter, you may find that their cuttings and plants are already out of stock. If you want to get some of the less widely-available varieties (likely not stocked by your local nurseries), you may need to pre-order in fall.
Nurseries in my area tend to emphasize the more “ornamental” varieties, which won’t be the best choice if what you’re after is flavorful and abundant fruit. They’ll still give you some flowers and fruit, but they haven’t been selected for excelling in flavor and yield.
Be sure to check out all the awesome elderberry and elderflower products these growers make as well. Those are not affiliate links, by the way, and I earn nothing from purchases you make. I just really enjoyed talking to these growers and think they’re doing some very cool stuff!
If you have a nice haul of elderberries and aren’t sure what to do with them, let me suggest putting up a batch of this research-backed homemade elderberry syrup and drizzling it on these delicious elderberry overnight oats. If you have loads more and aren’t sure what to do with them, be sure to check out these 20 uses for elderberries!
Did you know there are likely edible and medicinal plants growing in your yard right now? Here are some top choices for edible weeds and some remedies that may be growing your in your yard this very minute. You may have some of these 150 edible flowers growing near you as well.
Do you like to forage? Ever found elderberry growing in your foraging expeditions?
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Elderberry identification photo credits: Susannah Shmurak, Susannah Shmurak, RitaE, born1945, Hardyplants, Steve Bidmead, Edal Anton Lefterov, EM80, Capri23auto, Susannah Shmurak, Susannah Shmurak
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.