What Elderberries and Elderberry Plants Really Look Like

Have you ever wondered what elderberries and elderberry plants look like? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll explore the appearance of elderberries and elderberry plants, making it easy for you to identify them. We’ll also discuss some common misconceptions and lookalikes to help you differentiate elderberries from other similar plants.

Elderberry Plant

The Unique Characteristics of Elderberries

Elderberry plants can grow up to 10 feet tall, but they are usually found in the 3-6 foot range. Several features distinguish elderberries, including their leaves, berries, flowers, and stems. These characteristics make it easy to identify elderberries and the bushes they grow on.


The leaves of an elderberry plant have serrated edges and a fine white hair on the underside. This jagged edge is a crucial feature that sets elderberries apart from other similar plants like pokeberry.

Elderberry Leaves


Elderberries start off green when unripe and then turn purplish black when they ripen. These small, round berries have a smooth surface and grow in clusters that can be up to 10 inches across.

Ripe Elderberries


Before the berries emerge, elderberry plants are adorned with tiny white flowers. Each flower has five rounded petals. As the plant grows, these flowers eventually transition into elderberries, giving the plant a beautiful transformation.

Elderberry Flowers


Elderberry stems are green during their early stages of growth, and after one year, they develop bark with bumps and a non-smooth texture. This distinct characteristic makes it easy to identify elderberry plants.

Green Elderberry Stem

Recognizing the Elderberry Bush

The elderberry plant is a shrub that can reach up to ten feet in height, but it is more commonly found between three and six feet tall. Like the elderberries themselves, the leaves, branches, flowers, and berries of the elderberry bush are essential distinguishing features.

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Elderberry Bush

Upon initial inspection, you’ll notice the jagged leaves, which are always present on elderberry plants. The combination of these unique characteristics makes it effortless to identify an elderberry bush.

Where and When Do Elderberry Plants Thrive?

Elderberries can be found in a variety of climates and locations worldwide, including the United States, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. These plants prefer full sun but can also grow in partial shade. While they can tolerate various types of soil, they thrive in well-drained soil with high organic matter content.

Global Plant Hardiness Zones Chart

Elderberries generally grow best in zones 3-8, according to the Global Plant Hardiness Zones chart. However, they have been known to thrive in colder or warmer regions as well. The key is to find a mild climate that aligns with your geography.

The Various Varieties of Elderberries

There are approximately 30 different varieties of elderberry bushes, but the most common ones in North America are Sambucus canadensis (American elderberry) and Sambucus nigra (European elderberry). Although these two species are somewhat different, they share many similarities.

Sambucus canadensis is more prevalent in North America and can be found throughout the eastern, central, and western United States, as well as parts of Canada. On the other hand, Sambucus nigra is typically found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

Both plants have similar appearances and growth habits, making it challenging to tell them apart. However, Sambucus canadensis produces smaller, less sweet berries compared to Sambucus nigra. Furthermore, Sambucus canadensis is more cold-resistant than Sambucus nigra. So, if you’re in North America, it’s most likely Sambucus canadensis that you’ll come across.

Elderberry Lookalikes

There are several plants that bear resemblance to elderberries, which can lead to confusion. Let’s explore some of the most common lookalikes and how to tell them apart.

Pokeberry/Pokeweed vs Elderberry Identification

Pokeberry and elderberry plants are often mistaken for each other due to their similar-looking berries. However, there are key differences to look out for. Pokeberry clusters grow straight up and down, resembling a pinecone shape, while elderberry clusters look fuller and more circular. Additionally, pokeberry leaves are smooth, while elderberry leaves are unmistakably jagged or “saw-toothed.”


Blueberry Identification

While less common, elderberries can still be confused with blueberries due to the similarity in their berries and bushes. The critical distinctions lie in the smooth edges of blueberry leaves, the larger size and shape of blueberries, and the distinct large crater or divot on one end of each blueberry.

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Blueberry Plant

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

Aralia Spinosa, or Devil’s Walking Stick, bears clusters of dark purple berries and vines that make it resemble elderberry. However, the easiest way to differentiate the two is by examining the bark and main stalk area. Aralia Spinosa has long thorns protruding from its bark, whereas elderberry bushes lack such thorns.

Aralia Spinosa Berries
Aralia Spinosa

Redosier Dogwood and Silky Dogwood vs Elderberry Identification

Redosier Dogwood and Silky Dogwood, variations of the dogwood plant, can be mistaken for elderberries due to their similar flower clusters, shrub sizes, and berry clusters. However, their leaves and berries reveal the truth. Dogwood berries have smaller clusters and are generally blue-white when ripe, while elderberries grow in larger clusters and have a distinctive dark purple or black color. Additionally, dogwood leaves are smooth and lack the jagged edges of elderberries.

Silky Dogwood
Redosier Dogwood

Water Hemlock vs Elderberry Identification

Water Hemlock is a highly poisonous plant that often gets mistaken for elderberry, especially when in bloom. However, there are noticeable differences. Elderberry flowers have a flat grouping, while water hemlock flowers resemble a cone or firework shape. Moreover, water hemlock stalks have striations and different textures, whereas elderberry stalks are either green (for young plants) or have a bark surface with raised bumps.

Water Hemlock

Finding Elderberries Growing Near You

Elderberries can be found in various habitats, including woods, hedgerows, meadows, and even urban areas. They are prevalent mostly east of the Rocky Mountains, extending south into Central America. Look for elderberries near roads or other disturbed areas, as they tend to grow in places where the land has been burned and subsequently regrown.

Late summer and early fall are the best times to find ripe elderberries. However, if you’re foraging in early spring, keep an eye out for white elderflowers, as the berries may not have developed yet.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Elder Used For?

Elderberries have been used for various medical purposes, including reducing inflammation, alleviating cold and flu symptoms, aiding digestion, and lowering blood sugar levels. Additionally, elderberries have culinary uses, such as making wine, pies, jams, and other food items. They can also be used as a dye, and the wood has been used for smoking meat.

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How to Harvest Elderberries?

When harvesting elderberries, wait until the berries have turned a deep purple color, indicating ripeness. You can harvest them by hand or use pruning shears. Be sure to remove any unripe berries or debris mixed in with the good ones. The harvested berries can be used fresh or frozen for later use.

Can I Grow My Own Elderberry?

Absolutely! Growing your own elderberry bush is relatively easy and can be done from seeds, cuttings, or divisions. While propagating elderberries from seed can be a slow process, purchasing a young plant from a nursery or online retailer is the quickest way to start growing your own elderberry bush. Plant your elderberry in an area with full sun and well-drained soil. With minimal care, you’ll have your very own elderberry bush producing fruit in no time!

When and How to Harvest Elderberry?

To harvest elderberries, wait until the berries have turned a deep purple color, indicating ripeness. You can then pluck the berries by hand or with pruning shears. Remember to discard any unripe berries or debris. The harvested berries can be eaten fresh or used for various culinary purposes.

Can You Eat Elderberries Right Off The Bush or Tree?

No, elderberries are toxic when eaten raw due to the presence of glycosides, which are toxic compounds. It is essential to cook elderberries before consuming them to ensure they are safe to eat.

In Conclusion

Elderberry plants are fast-growing and can bear fruit as early as their first year of growth. These plants can live for approximately 20 years, producing berries for most of that time. Elderberries are a fantastic addition to any home garden due to their ease of growth and maintenance. They also provide a valuable food source for birds and other wildlife.

Now that you know what elderberries and elderberry plants look like, you’ll be able to identify them with ease. Enjoy the beauty and benefits of these remarkable plants. For more gardening and plant care tips, be sure to explore our other blog posts.

Remember, if you’re interested in growing your own elderberry bush or learning more about elderberries, visit Ames Farm Center for an extensive selection of elderberry plants and resources.