The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) plant, also called common elder, provides both animals and humans with delicious berries. Birds and small mammals will include elderberries in their diet, according to the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees.” People will pick elderberries and use them in wines, pies, preserves and jams. The wood of elderberry is perfect for making toys such as whistles and popguns. To identify this common plant of the Eastern United States, concentrate your efforts on features such as its leaves, stems, bark and fruit.
Look for elderberry to be in the form of a small tree or a large shrub. The elderberry is part of the Honeysuckle family and grows to maximum heights of about 12 to 16 feet. In most cases, the elderberry will be in the range of 5 to 8 feet high. When tree-sized, the trunk will only have a diameter of about 6 inches. As a shrub, the elderberry is usually multi-stemmed.
Examine the leaves of the elderberry plant, looking for compound leaves. Leaves of this type have a central stem upon which many smaller leaflets attach. Elderberry leaflets are from 1.5 to 4 inches long and the stem on which they grow is 5 to 9 inches in length. On the typical elderberry plant, there will be from five to 11 dark green leaflets on each stem.
Inspect the white flowers that develop each summer, usually in July. The University of Connecticut Plant Database website says the blooms grow in flat-topped clusters known as cymes. The individual flowers are just a quarter of an inch across, but they will grow in groups as wide as 8 inches.
Study the fruit of an elderberry plant, considering its color and size. By September, the fruit is mature and takes on a deep purple-black shade. The fruit is a quarter-inch wide, develops in large clusters and has a slightly sweet taste to it.
Scrutinize the elderberry plant for any of its other distinguishing aspects. Look for the bark to be a lighter shade of gray or brown and possess a series of what appears to be raised dots on it. The elderberry is subject to a leaf ailment called powdery mildew, which can form a chalky white coating on the foliage. Search for elderberry close by to water, as it typically grows near ponds, lakes, rivers and other waterways in open areas. The twigs of elderberry are pithy inside but the wood is hard on the exterior.