How to Identify Elderberry Plants & Fruit


Elderberry, a softwood tree-like shrub, grows 12 to 20 feet tall at maturity. Commonly found in the southeastern United States, it thrives in the bottomlands of Florida and Mexico's Gulf regions. Elderberry fruits are edible for both humans and animals, attracting white-tailed deer and many species of birds. A member of the honeysuckle family, the elderberry prefers marshy, wet areas. Identify elderberry plants and fruit by its leaves, bark and fruit. A local plant guidebook, available at most county agricultural extension offices, can help in identifying the elderberry.

Step 1

Identify the elderberry habitat. Elderberry plants grow in moist woodlands and in wetland areas beside swamps, lakes and canals.

Step 2

Look for elongated, oval-shaped leaves that are grouped in five to 11 leaflets growing opposite each other on a single stem. The leaflets are 1½ to 6 inches long and up to 2¼ inches wide. The entire leaflet grouping is 5 to 9 inches long.

Step 3

Study the bark of the plant. Elderberry bark should be grayish-brown, thin and smooth in younger shrubs, with a slightly rougher texture developing as the elderberry matures.

Step 4

Look for the elderberry plant's flat-topped, lacy flowers. The flowers are large, white and slightly fragrant, growing 6 to 12 inches wide in clusters.

Step 5

Check for a light-gray to white stem interior to identify elderberry plants. Crush the foliage in your hands to detect a foul, acrid scent.

Step 6

Look for berrylike purplish-black fruits that grow in clusters. You'll see the ¼-inch-diameter elderberry fruits growing from summer through early autumn.

Tips and Warnings

  • Don't confuse the elderberry plant with the toxic water hemlock (Cicuta mexicana). Unlike the elderberry, the water hemlock's stems are hollow and have purple stripes. Don't touch the water hemlock, as all parts of it are toxic.

Things You'll Need

  • Plant field guidebook


  • School of Forest Resources & Conservation: Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis)

Who Can Help

  • "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants"; William Morrow; 1994
Keywords: identify elderberries, plant identification, elderberry shrub

About this Author

Sarah Terry brings 10 years of experience writing novels, business-to-business newsletters, and a plethora of how-to articles. Terry has written articles and publications for a wide range of markets and subject matters, including Medicine & Health, Eli Financial, Dartnell Publications and Eli Journals.