How to Identify Elderberries: A Visual Guide

Do you know what elderberries look like? If not, we have you covered. In this article, we will discuss the appearance of elderberries so that you can identify them easily. We will also talk about the appearance of an elderberry plant and other lookalikes, so that you can distinguish it from other commonly mistaken plants.

elderberry close up
Elderberry Plant

What Do Elderberries Look Like – Identification Guide.

The elderberry plant can grow up to 10 feet tall, but it is more commonly found in the 3-6 foot range. A few distinguishing features are the leaves, berries, flowers, and stems. These are the best way to identify elderberries and the bush they grow on.

Leaves

The leaves of an elderberry plant are serrated and have a fine white hair on the underside.

The serrated leaves are a very important feature to remember. Most other plants that are easily confused such as pokeberry will not have jagged edges on the leaves.

close up of elder leaves
Note the jagged “saw-tooth” edges on the leaves and the thin veins on the underside

Berries

The berries of an elderberry plant are green when unripe, and turn a purplish black when they ripen.

The berries are small, round, and have a smooth surface.

The plant will go from a flower state to producing berries about 8 weeks later. The berries grow in groups which may be up to 10 inches across.

zoomed in view of the berries
Ripe elderberries – dark purple or black in color. Large berry clusters.

Flowers

Before the berries emerge the plant will have lots of tiny white flowers covering it. Each flower has 5 petals and the edges are rounded. The flowers are very small and do not get very large. As the plant continues to grow these flowers will eventually transition into elderberries.

Elderberry flowers – note the white color, 5 pedals, and mostly flat growth.

Stems

Another way to identify elderberry is by the stems. Stems will be green during the developmental stages of the plant (younger than one year). After the plant passes the one year mark it will start to develop bark. The bark should have bumps on it and not be very smooth.

Green stem – young or new growth

What Does an Elderberry Bush Look Like?

The elderberry plant is a shrub that can grow up to ten feet tall, but it is more commonly found in the three-to-six-foot range. A few distinguishing features of the elderberry plant are the leaves, berries, flowers, and stems.

As mentioned above, the leaves, branches, flowers, and berries are all key distinguishing features for an elderberry plant.

top of an elder bush
Bushes can grow as high as 8-10 feet.

You can refer to the section above for more details, but the easiest thing to spot upon initial inspection is the jagged leaves, since elderberry plants always have jagged leaves.

Where and When Do Elderberry Plants Grow?

Elderberry grows in a variety of climates and locations, including the United States, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The plant prefers full sun but can also grow in partial shade. Elderberry is tolerant of a wide range of soils, although it prefers well-drained soil that is high in organic matter.

Elderberry grows best in zones 3-8 from the Global Plant Hardiness Zones image below. While it has been known to grow in colder and even warmer regions than 3-8, it does best in these regions and doesn’t require as much care.

 

Global Plant Hardiness Zones Chart

Elderberry prefers to grow any time from early spring after frost has passed to late fall. Early spring is its preferred choice, but the plant is extremely hardy, so late fall is totally viable for the plant as well. Elder does not like excessive heat or cold, so whenever a mild type of climate lines up with your geography is when it will grow best.

Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra and others) Varieties

While there are around 30 different varieties of elderberry bush, the most common in North America are Sambucus canadensis (also called American elderberry) and Sambucus nigra (also called European elderberry) some people consider these to be the same species, although technically they are a bit different.

Sambucus canadensis is the more popular of the two in North America and is found throughout the eastern, central, and western United States as well as parts of Canada. Sambucus nigra is found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

Both plants are very similar in appearance and growth habit, so they can be difficult to tell apart. The main difference is in their fruit production. Sambucus canadensis produces small, dark berries that are not as sweet as the berries of Sambucus nigra.

Sambucus canadensis is also more resistant to cold temperatures than Sambucus nigra.

So, if you’re trying to identify an elderberry plant in North America, chances are it’s Sambucus canadensis.

Elderberry Lookalikes

Pokeberry/Pokeweed vs Elderberry Identification

These plants are different but often confused due to their similar looking berries. The main difference to look out for are the way the berries are clustered and the leaves on the plant.

Pokeberry – Note how the berries are not clustered and the smooth edged plant leaves

Pokeberry clusters tend to grow straight up and down in a pinecone type shape, while elderberry clusters tend to be more “full” looking and circular.

The leaves of pokeberry are also more smooth, while the leaves of elderberry are very jagged and often referred to saw “saw-toothed”.

Blueberry Identification

These are less commonly mixed up, but you’d be surprised how often it still happens. The main reason these get mixed up are the similar looking berries and bushes.

Blueberry plant – smooth leaves, different color and shape to the berries

Blueberries have a non-jagged leaf edge and larger berries. The berries also have a very large crater/divot on one end. See this guide for more information.

Aralia Spinosa (Devil’s Walking Stick) vs Elderberry Identification

This plant has clusters of dark purple berries as well as similar looking vines and can be easily mixed up. The berries of the Aralia Spinosa are slightly more bumpy than elderberries but look very similar

 

 

Aralia Spinosa Berries  (Photo Attribution: Dan Nickrent 2006 – USA: Illinois: Trail of Tears State Forest)

 

Aralia Spinosa – Note the spikes – easiest way to distinguish this plant.

The best distinguishing factor is the bark/main stalk area. On the Aralia Spinosa there will be long thorns protruding out. Elderberry bushes will not have thorns like this.

Redosier Dogwood and Silky Dogwood vs Elderberry Identification

These variations of dogwood are often mistaken for elderberry due to their similar flower clusters, shrub size, and berry clusters.

 

Silky Dogwood – smooth leaf edges, flowers different with 4 pedals
Redosier Dogwood – smooth leaf edges, flowers different like above

The best way to tell these plants apart are the leaves and berries. Dogwood berries have smaller clusters and are generally more of a blue/white color when ripe.

The leaves of the dogwood are also smooth and do not have the saw-tooth type edges that an elderberry plant has.

Water Hemlock vs Elderberry Identification

This is an extremely poisonous plant which can often be mistaken for elderberry when in bloom. These plants can be found growing near to each other and have some similar features such as jagged leaves and white flowers.

The elderberry flowers tend to have a flat grouping, while the flowers of a water hemlock tend to have a more cone or firework type of bloom.

Water Hemlock – similar looking flowers and jagged leaves. The stalk is an easy way to tell this apart, refer to the video below.

Water hemlock also has striations and different textures throughout the stalk, whereas the elderberry plant either has a green stalk (if young) or a bark stalk with some raised bumps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBpBzgxRh6k

How to Find Elderberries Growing Near You

Elderberries can be found in a variety of habitats including woods, hedgerows, meadows, and even in urban areas. They grow mostly east of the rocky mountains and extend south all the way into Central America.

They are often found growing near roads or other disturbed areas. They also tend to grow in areas where the land has been burned and then plants have re-grown.

The best time to look for elderberries is in the late summer or early fall when the berries are ripe and ready to be plucked. If you’re foraging during the early spring keep an eye out for white elderflowers since the berries may not be developed yet

FAQ:

What is Elder Used For?

Medical Uses

Black Elderberry has been shown helpful for all sorts of medical uses such as:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Reducing the duration and symptoms of the cold and flu
  • Helping Digestion
  • Lowering Blood Sugar Levels

Edible and Other Uses

Elder has also been used for making wine, pies, jams, and other food items. It has also been used as a dye, and in some cases the wood has been used for smoking meat.

How to Harvest Elderberries

Elderberries can be harvested by hand or with a small tool such as pruning shears. It is best to wait until the berries are ripe and have turned a deep purple color.

The berries can then be pulled off of the stem easily. It is important to remove any unripe berries or debris that may be mixed in with the good ones.

Once the berries have been harvested, they can be used fresh or frozen for later use.

Can I Grow My Own Elderberry? 

Yes, you can grow your own elderberry bush! They are relatively easy to grow and can be done from seed, cuttings, or divisions.

Elderberries can be propagated from seed, but it is a slow process and can take up to two years for the plant to produce fruit.

The easiest and quickest way to get an elderberry plant that is ready to fruit is to purchase a young plant from a nursery or online retailer.

Once you have your plant, it is important to plant it in an area that receives full sun and has well-drained soil.

Elderberries are relatively low maintenance and only need to be pruned every few years to keep them from getting too big.

With a little bit of care, you can have your own elderberry bush producing fruit in no time!

When and How To Harvest Elderberry

The best time to harvest elderberries is in the late summer or early fall when the berries are ripe and have turned a deep purple color.

Elderberries can be harvested by hand or with a small tool such as pruning shears. It is best to wait until the berries are ripe and have turned a deep purple color.

The berries can then be pulled off of the stem easily. It is important to remove any unripe berries or debris that may be mixed in with the good ones.

Once the berries have been harvested, they can be used fresh or frozen for later use.

Can You Eat Elderberries Right Off The Bush or Tree?

No, elderberries are toxic until heated, this is because of the presence of glycosides which are toxic. It is recommended that you cook elderberries before eating them as this will make them safe to consume.

Conclusion

Elderberry plants are fast growers and can produce fruit after first year of growth.

The plant will live for around 20 years and will produce berries for most of that time.

Elderberries are a great addition to any home garden because they are relatively easy to grow and maintain. They are also a great source of food for birds and other wildlife.

If you’re looking for a fruit-bearing plant that is easy to care for, elderberry is a great choice.

Now that you know what elderberries and elderberry plants look like, you should be able to identify them with ease. Be sure to check out our other blog posts for more information on gardening and plant care.

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