How to identify elderberry tree

Elderberry Identification and Foraging Tips

Last Updated on October 6, 2022

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 bush 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 species of elderberry 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 elderberries 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.

Here’s a map showing where canadensis grows and another showing where cerulea may be found. In drier climates, you may see cerulea called mexicana.

Here’s loads more about types of elderberry and elderberry cultivars you might want to add to your garden. Once you’ve chosen, here’s everything you need to know (and more) about growing elderberry.

Elderberry Identification

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 a good foraging book for positive elderberry identification.

Or consider finding a veteran forager, who can help teach you to correctly identify elderberry bushes. 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 bush.  

Maybe you’ve found some earlier-ripening mulberries or wild black raspberries? Here’s what to know about foraging mulberries and juneberries.

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 bush 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 elderflower 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.


Elderberries 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 clusters of elderberries downward.

Are Elderberries Edible?

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. Here’s more on the question, ‘Are elderberries poisonous?’ if you’re curious.

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 effects on health, expert growing advice, plus 62 delicious recipes for using your elderflowers and elderberries, pick up a copy of Everything Elderberry here. 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.

False spirea

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 bushes.

Chinese privet also has long sprays of white flowers. See images here.

Love foraging and green living hacks? Sign up for my twice-monthly newsletter here and get a free e-book on using elderberry safely and effectively as a welcome to the HGS community.

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed

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. Here’s more about red elderberry, or red berried elder.

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.

Red Elderberries

Flowers of Red Elderberry

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?

Dwarf Elder

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 foraging guides, OK?)

Ask around:

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.

Harvest Responsibly

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:

  • 360 Farms
  • Norm’s Farms
  • River Hills Harvest

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!

I get so many questions about how to use elderberries that I wrote a short downloadable guide to using elderberries safely and effectively. You can get yours by filling in the form here.

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. Dry some and you’ll have plenty for immune-boosting elderberry tea all winter. 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 in your yard this very minute. You may have some of these 150 edible flowers growing near you as well.

Other wild plants to seek out in your yard or neighborhood include:

  • Purslane / verdolaga
  • Wild Violets
  • Dandelion (35+ uses for dandelion here)
  • Pine needles (to make pine needle tea or pine syrup)
  • Mountain ash berries
  • Edible crab apples
  • Wood sorrel
  • Creeping Charlie
  • Spruce needles for spruce tea, and spruce tips in spring
  • Edible clover
  • Virginia waterleaf

Do you like to forage? Ever found elderberry bushes in your foraging expeditions?

Pin to save this info on elderberry identification for later!

Elderberry identification photo credits: Susannah Shmurak, Susannah Shmurak, RitaE, born1945, Hardyplants, Steve Bidmead, Edal Anton Lefterov, EM80, Capri23auto, Hans Braxmeier


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.

Elderberry Identification (+ Elderberry Look-Alikes!)

In this article: Easy elderberry identification for homemade elderberry syrup or other use of elderberries. Learn how to identify wild elderberry and elderberry look-alikes (pictures included) for a successful and safe elderberry harvest.

While dried elderberries are an option available commercially, there is something about being self-reliant and resourceful and harvesting your own, returning to our roots… am I right? Plus you can save a few bucks while doing so and foraging forces you out in the fresh air, so it’s an all-around win-win. Here are all the necessary tools for elderberry identification including common elderberry look-alikes to avoid. (There is also such a thing as poisonous elderberry look-alikes, so definitely keep an eye out for those!)

Topics covered in this article:

  • Elderberry facts
  • Elderberry identification
  • Harvesting elderberries
  • Processing fresh elderberries
  • Common elderberry look-alikes
  • Final tips for elderberry identification & foraging

Elderberry facts

Elderberries are the fruit of a plant variety known as Sambucus. There are three main types of elderberry plants:

  • black elderberry
  • blue elderberry
  • red elderberry

Most elderberry varieties produce berries that are edible to a degree, but black elderberry is the most versatile of the three, with various parts of the plant used for both medicinal and culinary purposes. This article will give you tools for identifying black elderberry, the elderberry variety used to make elderberry syrup (here is my favorite elderberry syrup recipe if you’re in need of one!).

The two most common types of black elderberry (otherwise simply known as “black elder”) are the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), both of which are cultivated for commercial use. While Sambucus nigra (European elderberry) is native to Europe, Sambucus canadensis (American elderberry) is native across a large area of North America.

The American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, or simply American elder) can be found in various parts of the United States with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington (see a range map here). It’s particularly common in the eastern part of the country and the Midwest.

Black elderberries are associated with several amazing health benefits (they are high in vitamin C and many other compounds beneficial for the immune system), but you’ll need to make sure that what you have found is indeed black elderberry and not one of the elderberry look-alikes!

Elderberry identification

Although tolerant of partial shade, wild black elderberry is typically found in sunny locations in woodlands and city forest preserves, on lake and pond shores, along riverbanks, streams, fields, and roadsides. Depending upon the region, from late spring to early summer the shrub produces creamy-white flowers which turn to small dark-purple berries by mid-summer to early fall.

In order to correctly identify elderberry in the wild, you’ll want to evaluate several parts and features of the plant, such as the plant’s size, whether it’s woody or pliable, taking note of the bark, leaves, flowers, and berry arrangement.

Features to look for: 

  • Size

The American black elderberry is a large sprawling shrub with an unkempt appearance, typically 5-12 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide at maturity. There is often more than one around, although you can find them growing singly.

Elderberry bush in bloom

Unlike the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra) that can reach the size of a small tree (growing 20-30 feet tall), American elderberry is more compact.

  • Flower

You can try locating wild elderberry in your area early in the season when it flowers. Elderberry bushes typically bloom in waves over a period of several weeks from late spring to early summer.

A smaller-sized American black elderberry in bloom

Depending on where you live, from around late May to late June or early July (earlier in warmer climates), keep your eyes peeled for shrubs bearing large clusters (around 3-10 inches across on average) of small fragrant creamy-white flowers that grow upright in flat-topped bunches that arise from a central point.

Each tiny flower has 5 rounded cream-colored petals and yellow anthers (pollen sacs) on white stalks. The elderberry flower is better known as elderflower and has a variety of culinary and medicinal uses of its own.

White blossoms of elderflower
  • Berries

When identifying elderberry in late summer or early fall, look for small round dark-purple (almost black) berries that grow in clusters which droop down from bright reddish-pink stems. The elderberry fruit typically ripens between mid-August and mid-September, depending on the region.

Ripe elderberries ready for harvestA thinned-out elderberry cluster heavily pecked by birds
  • Leaves

Identifying elderberry leaves wouldn’t be my priority over other features of the plant since many plants can have similar leaf structure, but do make observation of the leaf appearance.

Black elderberry has compound leaves, with 5-11 (usually 5-7) leaflets on each leaf. Elderberry leaflets are oblong with serrated edges and grow in opposite pairs, with a single leaflet at the end of the stem.

Black elderberry identification: leaves and ripe berriesElderberry leaf identification
  • Branches

Last but not least, make sure to observe the plant’s branches when identifying elderberry.

Young twigs of the American elderberry are green and brittle, older stems and larger branches are woody with light grayish-brown bark and raised pores. The trunk may not be easily visible due to the sprawling habit of the plant. There are no thorns or spikes anywhere on the plant whatsoever.

Safe elderberry identification basics

If in doubt, leave it. Never use berries for consumption that you aren’t sure about.

Elderflower (elderberry flowers) can be mistaken much more easily than elderberries because many plants bear white flowers in the spring and summer that can closely resemble elderberry when in bloom, but elderberries (elderberry fruit) are very distinct in their color and berry arrangement and hard to miss even for a foraging novice.

To hone your elderberry identification skills, consider purchasing a field guide specific to your location or region so that you can get familiar with the kinds of plants growing in your area (both poisonous and edible) before you set on your first elderberry hunt.

Harvesting elderberries

Firstly, don’t eat raw elderberries!!! Consuming raw elderberries can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Fresh (& dried) elderberries contain small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides which are naturally-occurring compounds that can release cyanide after being eaten. Cyanide is no joke – it can be lethal if ingested in high-enough amounts. But raw safely processed elderberries aren’t as much of a threat as they’re often made out to be.

All parts of the elderberry plant contain varying levels of cyanogenic glycosides, but ripe elderberries contain the lowest amounts of these potentially toxic compounds as confirmed by many previous studies, including another recent one. The amounts are significantly higher in elderberry leaves, stems, and unripe berries. (So definitely don’t consume any of these parts of the American elderberry!)

Even though the risk of cyanide poisoning from the consumption of raw fully ripe elderberries is already low, cooking elderberries releases the toxic hydrogen cyanide, making cooked elderberries perfectly safe to consume.

When to harvest elderberries?

The elderberry fruit harvest season generally occurs by mid-summer to early fall – between mid-August and mid-September in most locations.

Elderberries go from flower to light green berries, to dark purple berries over a period of several weeks.

If you suspect you have located wild black elderberry, make frequent visits in late July through early August to check on the progress of elderberry development and ripening. Harvest elderberries once they turn dark and soften up.

Just as elderberry flowers bloom in waves, the elderberry fruit ripens equally gradually, so you can see both green (unripe) and dark (ripe) berries on the elderberry bush.

Black elderberry: ripe and unripe berry clusters

How do you tell when elderberries are ripe?

Elderberries turn deep dark purple when they are fully ripe. Look for clusters of berries that are deep purple to black in color with a plump appearance.

Red and green elderberries aren’t ripe and need more time.

Ripe purple-black elderberries & green unripe elderberries

Tips for harvesting elderberries

Bring scissors or garden clippers and clip off the entire berry clusters. Lay them loosely in plastic bags or large baskets or bowls.

Good to know: Fresh elderberries have practically no shelf life. You will have less than a day to process the berries before they begin to ferment, so plan your harvest day accordingly so that you have enough time to process your berries before they go bad.

Related: 8 Powerful Health Benefits of Elderberry Syrup (Backed by Science)

Related: Elderberries: Healthy or Toxic?

Processing fresh elderberries

  1. Strip elderberries from the clusters. Take caution to remove the stems. (If you have enough space in the freezer, you can freeze whole elderberry clusters in plastic bags and the berries will just pop off easily. )
  2. Use only the berries. Make sure to remove all elderberry stems, leaves, or twigs before processing as these parts of the elderberry plant contain higher levels of cyanide precursors that can cause cyanide poisoning (see “Harvesting elderberries” above). The tiny stems of the fruit clusters aren’t the easiest to remove but don’t pose the same amount of risk as the woody stems or elderberry leaves.
  3. Dark berries only! Discard green, reddish, and any lightly colored berries which are all unripe. Yup, those darn cyanide compounds again!
  4. Wash the berries. Immerse the berries in a large bowl of cold water (alternatively in the sink) to remove any debris or insects, followed by a rinse under running water. While you are checking, remove any mushy or spoiled berries as well.
  5. Process the berries. Fresh elderberries can be cooked, frozen, or dried. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few hours if you can’t use them right away, but you’ll want to process them ASAP as fresh elderberries are extremely perishable. If you’re freezing elderberries, it helps to pre-measure them by cups.
I like to get helpers for the tedious part of removing elderberries from the stems

Elderberry look-alikes

At certain stages of development, a few plants can vaguely resemble the American black elderberry. Some can be deathly poisonous and others toxic when used improperly, so correctly identifying wild elderberry (which has its own share of toxicity risks) is not something to be taken lightly.

But, have no fear, even though mistaking other plants for wild black elderberry is not impossible, it’s actually very easy to tell black elderberry from the elderberry look-alikes if you pay close attention to the plant’s features.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)Blackthorn has blue berriesRed elderberry has red berries

Even though both blackthorn and red elderberry are often mistaken for the American black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), you can see that they actually have very little in common with the black elderberry. One has blue berries and small leaves, the other has clusters of bright red berries instead of dark purple. They are nothing alike.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Another plant that can be mistaken for wild black elderberry is pokeweed (AKA pokeberry) which happens to be poisonous. Eating only a few berries can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Pokeweed even has the color down and the berries show up at around the same time, so do beware! Luckily there are easy ways to tell the two apart.

While both plants produce richly colored purple-black berries, elderberries grow in loose drooping clusters whereas the pokeberry fruit just kind of grows down the stem one by one and sticks out.

Elderberries are also smaller than pokeberries, and pokeberries have a more pronounced dimple. In addition, the pokeberry stem is a very eye-catching bright pink compared with the reddish elderberry stem.

Even the leaves are different – elderberry leaves have a jagged edge, whereas pokeberry leaves are smooth, often with a prominent pink vein on the underside.

Hercules’ club (Aralia spinosa)

Speaking of elderberry look-alikes, Hercules’ club (AKA Devil’s walking stick) is another plant that may try to fool you. Raw berries of this plant produce a numbing effect when chewed and are considered mildly toxic. But one good look and you will know not to pick the berries.

[Courtesy of Bloodworth Stefan, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center]

Hercules’ club berries can resemble the black elderberry fruit from afar but lack the drooping of black elderberries when inspected up close. Instead, the berries sort of stick up and out on the Hercules’ club bush vs. the looseness you’ll see in the black elderberry fruit clusters that hang down under the weight of the ripe berries.

The biggest giveaway in telling the two apart, however, is that the entire Hercules’ club plant is covered in thorns or spikes (depending on the variety) whereas the elderberry plant is completely thorn-less.

Aralia spinosa: heavily armed with thorns

Various herbaceous plants

Although many plants having clusters of small white flowers could theoretically be mistaken for elder flowers come springtime or early summer, especially the taller varieties that can reach several feet in height, just remember that elderberry is a woody shrub.

If what you see is an herbaceous plant, meaning the stems of the entire plant look green and pliable, it’s not elderberry. BUT – don’t touch!! – some elderberry look-alikes can be highly toxic even to touch, such as water hemlock (#1 below). Other plants that can resemble a young elderberry bush in the spring include cow parsley, giant hogweed, and many others.

Herbaceous plants that could be mistaken for the elderberry: 1. Water hemlock; 2. Cow parsley; 3. Giant hogweed

Furthermore, you can’t mistake the herbaceous elderberry look-alikes for the real thing later in the season as these plants simply don’t bear any berries.

Related: 21 Reliable Ways to Save on Groceries (And NOT Eat Junk!)

Final tips for elderberry identification & foraging

If you’re foraging for elderberries on land that you don’t own, check if foraging is allowed and whether there are harvesting limits. Take only what you need and leave enough for the wildlife. Birds love to feast on elderberries!

If you can choose between elderberry shrubs in a more distant off-trail area with minimal human intervention and a convenient nearby spot where the soil could be contaminated with heavy metals, synthetic fertilizers, or various industrial chemicals – such as near golf courses, pristine lawns, industrial areas, or busy roads, the extra effort of traveling to your site will likely rule in your favor.

Identifying elderberry in the wild is very simple when you know what you’re looking for, but the first times can be a little scary. That’s black elderberry! Or is it? Am I going to poison myself and my family? Ideally, when harvesting wild elderberries, have someone vet your berries (or the elder trees) before using them if you’re not *absolutely* sure about what you’ve got. You know… just to be safe!

Last but not least, as already said, be sure to cook elderberries before consuming to avoid the chances of cyanide poisoning.

I hope this article helps you with elderberry identification, providing all the necessary steps to locate and recognize the American black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) in the wild whether you use the berries for elderberry syrup or something else.

what it is: photos, benefits and harms, calories, recipes, planting and care Red elderberry is also called brush, or ordinary, black elderberry has more names: wasteweed, pishchalnik, sambuk, buzovnik. Plant bushes can live up to 60 years, are distinguished by beautiful flowering and useful berries. Elderberry is a toxic plant.

Black and red elder grows in the Central European and south-eastern parts of Russia, Siberia, the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine. Often found red elderberry in Eurasia, North America, black common in Macaronesia, North Africa, Asia, Europe, Transcaucasia, Moldova, New Zealand.

Unripe red elderberries can cause severe poisoning, especially in children. Black elderberry is not so dangerous, its ripe berries can be eaten.

Black elderberries are used to dye silk fabrics, the wood is used in watchmaking. Red elderberry branches have a specific smell and are used to repel mice. Fresh fruits clean copper utensils from plaque.

Elderberry is widely used as an ornamental plant, it is planted along the fences in the garden, in alleys and in parks. Special ornamental varieties have been bred that differ in the shade of flowers, fruits and leaves.

What elderberry looks like

Black elderberry is a shrub or small tree up to 2-6 meters in height. There are specimens up to 10 meters high. The stems of the bushes are branched, young shoots are green, gradually becoming brownish-gray in color and covered with a large number of yellow tubercles. Elderberry leaves are large, from 10 to 30 cm in length. Flowers fragrant, 5-8 mm in diameter, yellowish-white, pedunculated or sessile, collected in flat and large inflorescences 10-25 cm in diameter. The fruits are juicy drupes with black-violet skin, 5-7 mm in diameter. Inside the dark red pulp are 2-4 seeds. Berries ripen in August-September. The taste of berries is specific and unusual, but after heat treatment it disappears. Dried flowers and fruits are sour-sweet in taste.

The red elderberry is a highly branched shrub or small tree from 1.5 to 5 meters in height. The stems of the plant are erect, very brittle, with white tubercles on the surface. Leaves from 5 to 10 cm, with an unpleasant odor. Young leaves are often purple or dark red. Flowers on pedicels, fragrant and small, collected in oblong dense inflorescences of a conical or ovoid shape. Elderberry blooms in May - June for 15 days. The fruits are drupes with a red or bright red skin, 5 mm in diameter. Inside the pulp, the stone is light yellow in color. Berries ripen in July - August and are distinguished by an unpleasant odor and taste.

Varieties and types of elderberry

In addition to red and black elderberry, other species are also very popular:

  • blue elderberry is an ornamental species and grows into a tall tree up to 15 meters, found in North America. It grows along the banks of streams and rivers, in mountain pastures. Young shrubs are distinguished by branches of a red hue. Blue elderberry flowers are fragrant, cream-colored, collected in inflorescences. Berries are blue or with a bluish bloom;
  • herbaceous elder is found in Ukraine, the Caucasus, Belarus, the southern European part of Russia. In height, the bush grows up to 1.5 meters, the leaves have an unpleasant odor, but elderberry looks very beautiful during flowering and fruit ripening. Fresh berries are poisonous, they contain hydrocyanic acid. Dried flowers smell pleasant, they are often used in the storage of apples;
  • Siberian elder grows in dark coniferous and mixed forests, it can also be found in areas at an altitude of 2200 meters above sea level. The bush grows up to 4 meters in height and tolerates frost well. The flowers are greenish-white or yellowish-white, collected in dense inflorescences. Berries of saturated red color, 3-5 seeds inside the pulp. Ripe fruits are edible, but unripe ones can cause poisoning.

    Black elderberry leaves boiled in milk are used for burns, diaper rash, boils and inflammation of hemorrhoids. Elderberry improves metabolism, decoctions from the bark help with skin diseases, drink kissels for constipation.

    Harm of elderberry

    It is strictly contraindicated to eat berries and all parts of the plant in the following cases:

    • diabetes insipidus;
    • pregnancy and lactation;
    • under 12 years of age;
    • inflammatory diseases in the acute stage;
    • individual intolerance.

    Elderberry is a toxic plant, the red one is more poisonous than the black one. In case of an overdose of elderberry-based products, vomiting, diarrhea, inflammation of the intestinal and stomach mucosa, and severe poisoning may begin.

    What to cook with elderberries

    Ripe black elderberries are used in cooking. You can cook a large number of desserts from them, even young shoots and flowers are used. Jam, jelly, mashed potatoes are cooked from fresh berries. Elderberry juice is used as a natural dye for juices, wine and other drinks. Flowers are added to grape wine for a pleasant aroma, used in the manufacture of tinctures, liqueurs and cognac. Dried flowers are used to make tea and herbal drinks, fizzy drink. A syrup is prepared from sugar and inflorescences, which is popularly called "elder honey". It is useful for colds, such a delicacy is served with pancakes and pancakes.

    Young shoots are boiled and marinated; the villagers used to make salad from fresh ones. Jam, marshmallow, jelly, marmalade are made from berries. Fruits are well combined with various fruits and berries, tasty jam from apples, lemons and elderberries is obtained, honey and elderberry jam is very useful. They make liqueurs, tinctures, fillings for baking from berries. Dried elderberry is added as a seasoning to pilaf and muesli.

    Elderberry recipes

    Elderberry kitchen


    • 400 g buckwheat flour;
    • 500 g fruits;
    • 6 pears


    1. Rinse the elderberry and drain in a colander, pat dry.
    2. Sprinkle the berries with flour to turn white, leave for 4 hours at room temperature.
    3. Peel the pears and cut into small cubes.
    4. Pour the berries into a saucepan, add the pears and cover with boiling water until the fruits are slightly covered.
    5. Simmer on low heat for an hour and a half.
    6. Grind the finished fruits to a puree and place them back in the saucepan. If there are lumps of flour in the mass, take them out.
    7. When it boils, roll into sterilized jars. Serve with honey.

    Elderberry marmalade


    • 600 g sugar;
    • 1 kg fruits;
    • 40 g pectin powder;
    • 3 g citric acid.


    1. Soak the washed berries in water and cook, stirring constantly, until some of the liquid has evaporated and the fruit skin is soft.
    2. Pass the elderberry through a fine meat grinder.
    3. Pour the puree into a wide saucepan so that the mass layer is thin, steam until the volume is reduced by half.
    4. Add ¼ sugar, boil for 5 minutes. Mix pectin powder with 4 tablespoons of sugar, add to elderberry and boil.
    5. When all the sugar has dissolved, add the rest. Add citric acid towards the end of cooking.
    6. Roll boiling marmalade into jars.

    Buzina in folk medicine

    Black Buzina is used to treat many diseases:

    • liver disease
    • stomach ulcers
    • Skin Diseases
    • Groot0023 Nervous disorders
    • Various edema
    • Diseases of the female genitourinary system
    • dropsy
    • Arthritis
    • Rheumatics

Buzina has antipyretic, diaphoretic, anti -bacterial, knotting, talling and dietary, dietary, dietary and dietary, dietary and dietary.

Red elderberry is used for headaches, bronchial asthma, colds, rheumatism. An infusion of flowers is used externally for rinsing with acute tonsillitis and inflammation of the oral cavity. Red elderberry jelly has laxative properties.

Black elderberry decoction recipes

Bark and young shoots decoction

Mix the same amount of shoots and bark (30 g), pour over a liter of water. Boil for 5 minutes on low heat, leave to brew for 40 minutes and strain. The tool is used as a diuretic, with diabetes and edema.

Cold decoction

Take 2 parts flowers, 2 parts lime blossom, 1 part peony flowers, 1 part licorice root, 3 parts willow bark, 1 part chamomile flowers. Grind two tablespoons of the collection and pour 500 ml of boiling water. Leave to infuse for 15 minutes and strain. Drink warm throughout the day.

Storing elderberries

Fresh berries are stored in the refrigerator for 8-10 days, the fruits can be frozen, dried and canned. Dried fruits are stored for 6 months. Elder flowers are cut during blooming and dried in the attic or in the shade, crushed through a sieve or threshed. Ripe fruits are cut in clusters, laid out in a thin layer on a baking sheet, dried in the sun, then dried in an oven at a temperature of 60-65 degrees. Dried elderberry is separated from the twigs and stalks and stored in a dry, well-ventilated place. The roots are harvested in late autumn, dried, crushed and stored for up to 3 years. The bark is harvested in early spring from biennial branches. The first gray layer must be scraped off, then the bark is dried at a temperature of 65-70 degrees.

Dried flowers and berries are stored up to 2 years in bags, in a dry and well-ventilated area. It is necessary to regularly inspect raw materials for the presence of mold and parasites.

Growing elderberry in the country

Elderberry is a hardy plant, the place for planting should be well lit. Bushes of ornamental varieties do not tolerate shading well and lose their beauty. Slightly alkaline fertile soil is suitable for good elderberry growth. If the soil is acidic, it is deoxidized with lime. Landing should be carried out in warm weather in spring or autumn. The process consists of several steps:

  • prepare a planting hole 40-50 cm deep;
  • apply a mixture of phosphorus-potassium and organic fertilizers to the hole;
  • plant the seedling without deepening the root collar;
  • cover the plant with earth and compact well;
  • Water the seedling regularly until it is established and growing.

Elderberry starts flowering 3 years after planting. It is necessary to regularly water the bush, loosen the soil, remove weeds and cut branches. The soil should be moist, without stagnant water. So the plant will bloom and grow well, give juicy fruits. In order to keep moisture in the soil longer in the heat, the trunk circle is mulched with sawdust, peat or fallen leaves.

Shrub pruning is carried out to rejuvenate the plant and decorative. In the spring, young plants are cut off damaged and frozen branches. To rejuvenate old bushes, cut the branches short and leave ¼ of the stems. In summer, the bush quickly recovers. Elderberry is practically not affected by diseases and pests, but sometimes the crown is attacked by spider mites and aphids. If you notice a disease, immediately treat the bush with fungicides.

Elderberry is fertilized in early spring. Mineral solid fertilizers are scattered in the near-stem circle, then the soil is covered by harrowing by 10-15 cm. If fertilizers are soluble, they must be applied during irrigation. From organic fertilizers, compost or solid manure, litter infusions are suitable. It is preferable to make them in the fall, a year after planting the seedling.

How to distinguish toxic berries from edible and what to do with poisoning


June 2022

with the beginning of the summer season, people began to go to nature more often to the forest to enjoy to enjoy beauty and peace, breathe fresh air, and at the same time take advantage of the gifts of nature. Herbs, berries, nuts, mushrooms - this is what our meadows and forests are rich in. But only a true connoisseur of the plant world can, without harm to himself, collect and use in his diet those plants and berries that grow in natural conditions.

Most often we go to the forest for blueberries, which, as it turned out, can be confused with some poisonous berries. They are also very diverse. Some of them have a sweet taste and a pleasant aroma, but the consequences of eating can vary from indigestion to serious health problems.

How to distinguish inedible berries and what to do in case of poisoning, TOMIN.BY users are told by the valeologist of the Brest Regional Central State Health and Healthcare Center Valentina Mashenskaya.

  • How to distinguish poisonous plants and what to do in case of poisoning

Crow's eye (cross-grass)

Crow's-eye berries (cross-grass) are similar to blueberries, which prefers moist soil, therefore it is most often found in shady forests, shady forests. Its stem up to 40 cm high is decorated with four leaves and a yellowish-green flower, in place of which a shiny large black berry (up to 11 mm in diameter) appears in June-July, which really resembles a crow's eye and especially attracts the attention of children.

Raven eye.

But it is the berry that is the most dangerous part of the plant: it contains a huge dose of paristifin from the saponin group. Fortunately, these berries are not very palatable, so it is unlikely that you will be able to eat a lot of them. If this happens, symptoms of poisoning may appear. These include: nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, heartburn, diarrhea, photophobia, acute abdominal pain, tachycardia. With very severe poisoning, speech and swallowing disorders may occur, convulsions and other problems may occur, even death.

Blueberries can be distinguished from crow's-eye berries by several features:

  • blueberries are smaller, they are dark blue, not black;
  • blueberries grow in a dense carpet, and the poisonous raven eye prefers to grow singly;
  • blueberries have several berries on one shoot, not one;
  • blueberries color hands in a rich purple color.


Belladonna is very dangerous. You can get poisoned by all parts of the plant, including berries - children often confuse belladonna berries with wild cherries. Three berries are enough to get severe poisoning with a possible fatal outcome.

Belladonna loves moist, loose, humus soils, so the plant can be found singly or in groups in forest clearings, edges, clearings, among shrubs, near ponds, roads. It blooms in May-September (the flowers are large, bell-shaped, dirty yellow inside and brown-violet outside, with five recurved lobes). The fruit is a glossy black, large, slightly flattened, juicy berry with a sweet taste, reminiscent of a cherry.


Belladonna is a highly poisonous plant. The first signs of poisoning appear 10-20 minutes after belladonna enters the body and have the same characteristic signs as atropine poisoning: dryness and burning in the mouth and nasal cavity, difficulty swallowing and speaking, hoarse voice, dilated pupils that do not respond to light, impaired near vision, photophobia, flies before the eyes, dryness and redness of the face, spreading to the body, palpitations, agitation, sometimes delirium and hallucinations.

In severe belladonna poisoning, there is a complete loss of orientation, a sharp motor and mental agitation, shortness of breath, fever, cyanosis (blue) of the mucous membranes, a drop in blood pressure, and sometimes convulsions.

In both cases, there may be significant swelling of the subcutaneous tissue of the face, in the area of ​​the forearms and legs. Possible death from paralysis of the respiratory center and vascular insufficiency.

Black cohosh

There are berries in the forests that are difficult to confuse with known edible ones. But some try them out of simple curiosity, which is not to be done. These include the spiked crow. Voronets grows in light forests (birch, aspen, less often mixed or coniferous-small-leaved). Its bushes grow up to 90 cm in height and are quite far apart. It blooms in late May - early June, the fruits ripen in July-August. They have the appearance of large oval black berries, collected in clusters, which can be inclined to the ground or stand upright.

Black cohosh.

Black cohosh is hard to miss - its openwork leaves and black berries attract attention. But it is better to stay away from it, since all parts of the plant are poisonous. Fresh juice can cause skin burns, even sores on it. But the berries are the most poisonous. When poisoned by them, there is pain in the abdomen, nausea, diarrhea and severe salivation. They have an adverse effect on the nervous system, causing lethargy. The victim should be taken to a doctor immediately.

And in general, when going to the forest, one should remember that the black cohosh is a rather dangerous poisonous plant, and make sure that children not only do not take the berry in their mouths, but generally do not touch any of its parts. Buckthorn is a berry shrub or small tree that can grow up to seven meters. The branches and trunk of this plant can be prickly (laxative buckthorn) or smooth (alder or brittle buckthorn). After the flowering of the shrub, berries appear in the form of a ball with a diameter of up to 10 mm with two seeds inside. The berries are green at first, then turn red, and by mid-August, ripe fruits turn black.

In folk medicine, buckthorn is used as a laxative, although its green berries are poisonous, so picking and tasting them is not recommended. It is enough to eat 10-25 berries to cause severe poisoning.

But the berries of the alder buckthorn (brittle) are toxic in any period of ripening. Their poisoning is characterized by severe pain in the abdomen, nausea, vomiting, painful and prolonged diarrhea, and bleeding during urination is possible. In children, in addition to the above symptoms, there are also: dizziness, a sharp change in heart rate, and cramps in the limbs. For a lethal outcome, 6-8 berries are enough.

Alder buckthorn.

Alder buckthorn berries can be distinguished by the absence of thorns on the tree, the spiral arrangement of the leaves and the triangular shape of the pits in the berries (in laxative buckthorn they are egg-shaped).

Black nightshade

Black nightshade is a cultivated herbaceous plant about 70-100 cm high. It settles everywhere - in wastelands, around water bodies, along roads - like a common weed.

At the time of flowering (June-July) it is covered with white flowers of small size, which in August turn into inviting blue-black round berries, reaching a diameter of 10 mm.

Black nightshade.

It must be remembered that unripe berries and herbaceous parts contain the alkaloid solanine, which is poisonous in large quantities: it affects the nervous system, depressing or exciting it, it can paralyze nerve endings, dilate or narrow blood vessels, and anesthetize. Therefore, you can not taste green or brown (not ripe) berries, brew and use them in food in another way.


Some types of honeysuckle may be dangerous. To date, there are about 200 of its varieties, which differ in their properties and appearance. There are edible varieties whose berries are edible and have many beneficial properties. But there are also purely decorative varieties with bright flowers and berries for decorating wattle fences, fences, arbors. In shady forests, on the edges, along the banks of streams or in swamps, wild inedible honeysuckle is found. Their berries can be hazardous to health.

Forest honeysuckle.


Elderberries can also be dangerous. Elderberry is a highly branched shrub or low tree (on average 3-5 meters) with berry-like drupes collected in dense clusters.

In the middle lane, the most common black elder (wild bird cherry, pishchalnik), red (cystic, common with bright scarlet berries collected in large clusters) and herbaceous (stinking, small with dark purple berries, reddish juice of which has an unpleasant smell).

Black elderberry is conditionally poisonous, unripe berries are dangerous. But the toxicity of the red and herbaceous varieties is much higher, which allows them to be classified as poisonous plants. Their berries contain a dangerous glycoside amygdalin, the breakdown product of which is hydrocyanic acid, which causes poisoning and toxic damage to the brain.

Most poisoning occurs when eating unripe black elderberry or red or grassy elderberry. The entry of toxins into the body is possible through untreated hands after contact with the plant. Elderberry can be poisoned in the treatment of folk remedies made on the basis of leaves, shoots and berries of red and grassy elderberry.

Red elder.

When elderberry toxins enter the body, after 0.5–2 hours of the latent period, a typical clinical picture develops: dizziness, headache, sore throat, profuse salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pain in the epigastrium and in abdominal area, increased or slowed heart rate, convulsions (rarely).

Symptoms of poisoning may increase as the breakdown of toxic substances is enhanced in the lower digestive tract.

It is necessary to consult a doctor if a child has been poisoned by elderberry, because due to the functional characteristics of the child's body, the symptoms of intoxication will be more pronounced, active neurological symptoms are possible, and a lethal outcome is not excluded.

Adult elderberry poisoning usually does not require medical attention, as the toxin content of the plant is not high enough to cause serious health effects. However, if after first aid there is a negative trend (deterioration) or the condition of the victim is stably severe, it is necessary to call an ambulance.

Berries that can be eaten are blue-blue in color and have a pronounced waxy coating. The shape can be elongated, oval or cylindrical. The taste is quite pleasant, sweet, and many varieties lack bitterness.

Those berries that should not be eaten are round, small, orange, red or black. They have an unpleasant taste. They densely humiliate the shrub and are arranged in pairs (fused) or have a short stem (sitting on leaves).

It is important to know that they are not only inedible, but can also be dangerous to human life and health, as they contain xylosteine ​​glycoside, which causes digestive upset: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Young children who study the plot and seek to try everything on the tooth are at the greatest risk. Just a few berries can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, and diarrhea.

An adult would have to eat at least a handful of berries to feel the symptoms of poisoning, which is unlikely due to their unpleasant taste.

How to behave in case of poisoning by poisonous plants and berries?

At the first sign of poisoning, call an ambulance. Prior to their arrival, you need to be able to provide first aid.

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