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Elderberry Identification: A Step-by-Step Guide for Finding the Right Plant

The Elderberry is a unique fruit that has gained popularity over the past few years for its rich color and immunity-boosting claims. Identifying and harvesting your own source (rather than purchasing from the pharmacy) to use at home is a budget-friendly and fun way to reap the benefits of this plant.

It should be noted that this fruit can be toxic if not identified and prepared correctly. Also, the variety of harmful look-alike plants underscores the importance of accurately identifying and using Elderberries.

So how can you safely enjoy this special fruit and its health benefits? Keep reading this comprehensive guide to learn more about elderberry identification.

elderberry on the plant. Elderberry identification

Understanding Elderberries

So, what exactly is an Elderberry?

It’s a dark purple fruit that comes from an Elder tree. Enjoying them raw can be dangerous, as the plant and its fruit are both toxic to consume. But when prepared correctly, they’re useful as a natural health supplement.

Elderberries can usually be found in the form of syrup or extract. The syrup is often made into lozenges, gummies, and other forms of oral medicine.

Health Benefits

Elderberries have become popular in recent years, especially during the outbreak of COVID-19, for their immunity and anti-inflammatory health claims. They’re often found as a natural ingredient in cough, cold, and flu medications.

After using heat to destroy any toxic substances, Elderberries have been known to boost the immune system and have a positive effect against viruses. They’re packed with antioxidants and vitamins that support the immune system to reduce cold and flu symptoms.

They have anti-carcinogenic properties and help reduce inflammation, decreasing stress and infection susceptibility.

They also decrease cholesterol absorption throughout the body, which helps improve and maintain heart function. They’re high in vitamin A, which is great for the skin and promote healthy bowel movements because of their natural diuretic effects.

If you want to learn more, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) provides more specifics on the background of these health claims.

Proper Elderberry Identification

someone holding an elderberry plant


The plant produces round clusters of yellow and white flowers that eventually become Elderberries. The stem has oblong leaves with sharply serrated edges and bright green veins, which is a key factor in its identification.

Before ripening, they appear in clusters of red and green. When ripe, the fruits change color, ranging from a rich dark purple to black.

Avoiding a Mix-Up

It’s crucial to be aware of other plants that look like Elderberries. They’re incredibly toxic and make accurate identification techniques imperative for your health and safety. Listed here are some poisonous plants to keep an eye out for:


The Pokeweed trees and berries look extremely similar to Elderberries. The Pokeweed is tall and smooth with dark purple berries that can cause a blistering rash when touched.

The distinguishing feature of this plant is its bright red stem and smooth-edged leaves, as opposed to the sawtooth edges of an Elderberry leaf. Its fruits are found in one big cluster around the base of the stem, unlike the Elderberries, which branch off into multiple smaller clusters.

For more details on the dangers of and how to identify a Pokeweed, read this article from the Environmental Services of Portland.

The Devil’s Walking Stick

Another plant to keep an eye out for is the Devil’s Walking Stick. Like Elderberries and Pokeweeds, these plants produce small clusters of dark purple-black berries. If eaten in large quantities, these fruits can cause gastrointestinal issues, and if the seeds are chewed, they can cause poisoning.

The difference between the Elderberry and the Devil’s Walking Stick is simple. Much as its name suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick has thorns up its main stem, unlike that of the Elderberry, which is smooth.

The Maryland Department of Planning has a useful article that provides background and more characteristics on the Devil’s Walking Stick to help you steer clear of this mix-up.

Cross-Check Your Findings

If you’re unsure whether the plant you found is an Elderberry, cross-checking your findings is a great way to confirm it.

You’ll find a great resource in the “Everything Elderberry” book, which gives in-depth details on foraging, cultivating, and cooking with the fruit.

Where to Find Them

This fruit is native to North America, Europe, and Asia. It’s found throughout the eastern regions (like New England) and the Midwest of the United States.

Note that the southern limit in North America isn’t well defined, so exploring the northern regions is your best bet when searching for this fruit.

They thrive in moist areas with full or partial shade. Wetlands, lake shores, low forests, and old fields make the perfect habitat.

How to Harvest

To harvest these berries, all you need are a pair of pruning shears or scissors and gloves.

While holding the stem for stability, use your shears to cut off entire clusters just below where the branch meets the stem. Then place them into a basket or plastic bag for easy transportation.

It’s important to note that the stems and leaves of the plant are toxic, so the berries must be removed before using them.

When to Harvest

The best time to harvest Elderberries is in the second season. They usually mature between mid-August and mid-September.

During the harvesting season, the clusters ripen over a period of five to fifteen days and should be picked when they’re a rich shade of dark purple or black. The average plant yield is about 12 – 15 pounds.

Harvesting Flowers

You can also harvest the bush’s flowers by cutting them from the stem and putting them in a wide bin. These flowers appear just before the fruits and are pale yellow. They can be used for the same health benefits as the berries, or as a fun cocktail garnish!

How to Prepare

elderberry jam

There are so many options when it comes to how to use Elderberry. Here are a few ways we recommend using it!

In the Kitchen

Using your newly identified and safely harvested berries to make Elderberry syrup is a great choice.

To do so, place the Elderberries into a saucepan with some water over low heat. Simmer until they soften, and drain once the liquid is reduced by half (about 45 minutes). Use the back of a spoon to apply pressure and ensure all of the liquid is strained out.

Let the syrup cool, and add your favorite honey for extra sweetness.

This recipe from Happy Healthy Mama provides more detailed instructions for this process.

This syrup can be used to make a delicious cocktail, sweeten your tea, supplement a smoothie, flavor your oatmeal, and so much more.

You can even use this fruit to infuse your spirits. Check out this simple recipe for creating an at-home Elderberry Gin. All you need to do is place berries in a jar and combine them with your favorite gin and a few lemon peels.

To Supplement Your Health

Take a spoonful of Elderberry syrup every morning to start your day with an immunity boost and reduce potential cold or flu symptoms.

Or, combine your syrup with a bit of gelatin and boiling water to make delicious gummy supplements that you can take every day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Elderberry pplants in the sunlight

What are some easy ways to add elderberries to my diet?

If the foraging and preparation process isn’t for you, store-bought Elderberry gummies are a great way to get your daily dose. Take a look at our Best Elderberry Gummies blog post to research the best option for you.

Can I eat Elderberries by themselves, like blueberries and other fruits?

As previously mentioned, raw elderberries are toxic. However, you can buy them commercially prepared and freeze-dried, eliminating the harmful substances. These can be enjoyed alone, blended up, or added as a topping to your oatmeal, smoothie, or yogurt bowls.

What do Elderberries taste like?

Elderberries are tart, tangy, and sometimes bitter, unlike other berry varieties. Therefore, most people choose to sweeten them with honey, maple syrup, or other sugar alternatives before enjoying them.

So What Now?

Elderberries can reap great health benefits and add delicious flavor to various dishes when used correctly. However, a small mixup could cause more harm than good

Safety is one of the most important factors of your foraging journey. Understanding the qualities that help make the Elderberry unique will enable you to avoid the toxic look-alike plants and the dangers of incorrect preparation.

Now it’s time to go out and find your own harvest! This is a fun and exciting project just waiting to be explored. It may seem scary, but hopefully, the information from this article and supplemental resources will allow you to enjoy these fruits’ healthy and culinary uses.

Dive even further into the world of this interesting plant. Visit the Elderberry page on our website for more information about elderberries, including how to grow your own.