The problem with elderberries is that they can look like a host of other wild ripe berries. These lookalikes include pokeweed, devil's walking stick, and water hemlock.
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Are There Poisonous Berries that Look Like Elderberries?
Elderberry season is officially in full swing, and you’re probably out looking for elderberries. You can start foraging for this important wild edible from July through September when the berries are in bloom. Of course, this depends on your location.
The most common elderberry plants belong to the three main types, including;
- Black elder (Sambucus canadensis)
- Blue elder (Sambucus nigra subspecies cerulea)
- Red elder (Sambucus racemosa)
Blue and black elderflowers and elderberry are North America’s most popular and commonly foraged.
Although red elder is commonly found across North America, it’s not widely foraged. They are toxic if ingested raw. However, they can be eaten if cooked.
Check out our video on how to identify elderberry and its poisonous lookalikes!
The 3 Common Poisonous elderberry lookalikes
Before you spot the fruit of the elderflower, notice the white flowers. These flowers are a delicious treat as they are.
But, before you find yourself eating any elderberry berries, be sure you know which poisonous berries look like elderberries.
As mentioned, poisonous lookalikes include pokeweed, devil’s walking stick, and water hemlock.
1. Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)
You’re most likely to find the devil’s walking stick in the southern half of the East Coast, with its range extending into New England. Although the devil’s walking stick provides only a sour taste and is only mildly toxic, you’ll still want to stay away from it.
This wild plant is commonly confused with the American elderberry. Meaning it goes on the poisonous elderberry lookalikes list.
You only need to peek at this plant to see where the confusion comes from. The Aralia has dense clusters of dark purple berries that hang from striking burgundy stems. This combination looks incredibly similar to American elders.
But, the main stem is easily identified as a lookalike and not the real deal because it has large thorns.
Other similarities include the two wildflowers, environments, and the time they bear fruit.
2. Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana)
Please be careful with this one; it is poisonous and easy to confuse with wild black elderberry. Even consuming a small amount of American pokeweed berries can result in diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
It’s super easy to confuse the non-toxic elderberry with the toxic pokeweed because the elderberries and pokeberries bloom around the same time of year. Their bloom time is mid-summer to early fall.
But there are easy ways to tell the two wild plants apart. For example, looking down the sides of the plant’s stems, you’ll notice that pokeberries grow in bunches, and the berries all sport a dent.
In contrast, elderberries grow in clusters and look smaller. Despite any additional appearances, pokeweed and elderberry are not related
3. Water hemlock (Cicuta)
Water hemlock is a very poisonous wild plant to be wary of, as it can be confused with elderberry.
Although it comes from the same family as the carrot, parsnip, parsley, and wild fennel, it looks like elderberry when in bloom. You must check the leaves and stems to be sure you are harvesting the correct plant.
Water hemlock has large tubers that grow in bunches, like the carrot. Their stems are hairless but with grooves very similar to celery.
Pay attention to the shiny green leaves, especially halfway up the stem, as the leaf stem branches off in opposite pairs.
How to Make sure you Found Elderberry: Foraging Tips
- Check out the stems to ensure you’re looking at a poisonous elderberry lookalike, not the edible black elderberry. Unlike the American elder, which is smooth, the devil’s walking stick lookalike has thorns.
- You’ll probably realize you’re not eating genuine elderberries when eating pokeberries. Immediately, you’ll notice that the taste is highly unpleasant.
- Pokeweed’s berries are more prominent and hang in a long cylinder, unlike non-poisonous elderberries. For example, black elderberries often vary in color from deep purple to black and grow on reddish stems in clusters.
Don’t let poisonous elderberry lookalikes put you off foraging. When you have brought home edible elderberry, you can do lots with it.
Why not try making elderberry jams or elderberry syrup? Delicious!