It’s that time of year: Elderberry bushes in North America are doing their thing! Elderflower seems to be everywhere in New England. Meanwhile,shrubs in the South have finished flowering and are producing those precious berries. After our recent Instagram post about foraging for elderflower, we received several questions about identifying elderberry, since it does bear a resemblance to several other plants. So how can you tell the real deal from the lookalikes?
First, let’s take a good look at the real deal: Sambucus nigra, or Elderberry.
Elderberry is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere as a common shrub that can be 15 feet tall, and just as wide. It enjoys sun or part shade, and is equally happy in a roadside ditch or a field. The trunk is short, with soft, smooth gray-brown bark, covered with corky bumps and furrows resembling stretch marks. Old bark may look scaly. The twigs are hairless and yellowish-green with scattered pores called lenticels. If you snap a twig open, the inside is soft and white. Elderberry leaves are long, dark green, and serrated on the ends, like sawteeth. They branch off the twig in pairs, exactly opposite from each other. Elderflowers appear in the spring. They grow in a beautiful, huge, umbrella-like cluster called an “umbel” made of many yellowish white flowers with five flattened petals each. They smell faintly sweet. About a month later, the flowers drop off and elderberries are produced.
Berries are purplish-black, about 1/8” in diameter, growing in droopy umbrella-shaped clusters. They give off a musky odor. (Some of you may recall the Frenchman’s insult in Monty Python and The Holy Grail: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” ) Safety point: Elderberries should not be eaten raw. If they’re underripe, they’re toxic, and even the ripe ones can give a tummyache. They’re meant to be cooked into pies, jellies, and of course, Sweet’s Syrup! Elderflowers can be used in salads and cooking, but just use the blossoms themselves. All other parts of the shrub - bark, twigs, leaves, tiny green stems - should not be eaten.
Now, on to identifying those confusing doppelgängers.
The plant most closely resembling elderberry is Hemlock. It is critical that you not confuse the two. Poison hemlock, as you probably guessed from the not-so-subtle name, is toxic in almost every part of the plant, and even small amounts can cause skin reactions resembling burns, not to mention respiratory failure and death. It was used in ancient Greece to execute condemned prisoners, including Socrates. Poison hemlock can be pretty common in some areas, and if you find it in your yard, have it properly removed ASAP, especially if you have children or pets. It grows in damp soil near streams and along roadsides and trails. (This is not the same plant as the coniferous Hemlock tree… it’s perfectly safe.)
The quickest way to distinguish poison hemlock from elderberry is to look at the stems and stalks. They are tall (up to 10' feet), hollow, hairless, and have telltale purplish-red streaks. Next, check the leaves. Elderberry leaves branch off exactly opposite each other. Hemlock leaves branch off the stem in an alternating pattern. Leaves are triangular and lacy, and if you crush them, they smell bad. The flowers are small and white like elderflowers, but the clusters are more widely spaced. After the flowers drop, they don’t make berries, but instead produce small green fruits with wavy ribs. Inside are highly poisonous seeds that look like anise or caraway.
Hemlock is in the same family as wild fennel, parsley, parsnip and carrot. They can all look a bit like elderberry when in bloom. It’s important to check leaves and stems.
Fennel has yellow flowers, fronds instead of leaves, and smells strongly of licorice.
Cow Parsley, or Wild Chervil, has stems are pink, grooved, and hairy.
Cow Parsnip flowers are big and white, and smell like vanilla. The blossoms are huge, much more widely spaced than elderflowers, and supported on thick stalks up to 10 feet tall. This plant is toxic to skin.
Yarrow has frilly, fern-like leaves, yellow blossoms, and only gets to about 2 feet in size.
Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot (Daucus carrota) only grows to about 3 feet tall. The stems are hairy, while elderberry stems are hairless. If you remember “The Queen has hairy legs,” you won’t confuse the two! While elderflowers bloom in spring, in those beautiful giant umbels, Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms in summer, sporting flat blooms with a single dark flower “heart” in the center, supported by three prongs at the base. Old flowers curl up into a bird’s nest shape. The roots smell like carrots, and the leaves resemble and smell like parsley.
Giant Hogweed can grow up to 20 feet tall with huge leaves up to 9 feet wide. It’s invasive and can cause severe burns if touched, and the sap is poisonous. It has hollow stems streaked with reddish-purple, just like hemlock. These are nature’s warning labels! The white flowers grow in umbels up to 3 feet across, and might be mistaken for elderberry. And if you find this plant, call an expert to help you remove it! It’s on the Federal Noxious Weed List. (I didn’t know such a list existed… did you?)
Folks have also been known to confuse elderflower with the blooms of white Hydrangea and baby Crape Myrtles. Hydrangea produce densely packed snowball or cone-shaped clusters of flowers in midsummer, often weighing down their stems. Leaf shape varies, but leaves are generally large. The bark turns darker and peels off in the winter. Crape Myrtle has glossy green leaves with smooth edges that come to a pointed tip. Large flower clusters form on the ends of branches from July to September.
The next time you’re on a walk, see if you spot any of these! And if you find real deal elderberry out there in the wild, send us a picture!
Tracy Dygert for Sweet’s Syrup