Identify Wild Edible Elderberries

Before foraging, learn how to correctly identify American, European, blue, and red elder plants to avoid their toxic look-alikes.


Many years ago, after my wife and I had established our first homestead, a friend came out to visit. As we walked around the property, Ben would occasionally bend down, collecting what seemed to me to be nothing but weeds or bark or other scraps of plants and vegetation. He’d also point at a mass of tangled green plants, mentioning a number of names that made no sense to me at the time, and rattling off different ways they could be used as food or medicine. Ben was a forager; he was intimately familiar with the benefits of the abundant plant life all around us, something that most of us — including our family at the time — completely missed.

Recognizing Elder

The elder plant is a perennial with large pinnately compound leaves, which are leaves formed in pairs on opposite sides of each stem. A medium shrub or small tree, elder produces flowers that turn into drupes in late summer through early fall.

Elder Leaf

Samuel Thayer, an expert on edible wild plants, offers an excellent description of elder. The leaf typically consists of seven leaflets, which are sharply serrated; 2 to 5 inches long; elliptic with sharply pointed tips; and sessile, or have growth on very short petioles. The leaves and stems of elderberry give off a strong, unpleasant odor when cut or bruised. The small, white, five-petal flowers, about 1/4 inch across, are produced in rounded, somewhat flat-topped clusters, called cymes, at the ends of the branches. These cymes are typically 4 to 9 inches across, and each can contain hundreds of flowers. The fragrant blossoms open in late June and July.

American (Sambucus canadensis) and European (S. nigra) elderberries grow anywhere from 5 to 20 feet in height. In the wild, they reproduce by rhizomes and root suckers, as well as by seed, and tend to grow in dense thickets, similar to blackberries and raspberries.

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