Nature furnishes us no shortage of helpful, nutritious plants, and many of them bear tasty fruit. Some of my very favorites are berries, and one of my current favorites happens to be elderberries.
Yes, elderberries are toxic if you eat them raw, but so long as they are cooked and prepared properly, they have a sweet, tart and a flavor that I’ve grown to love. Jams, jellies, pies, syrup, it is all delicious!
But, if you’re going elderberry picking yourself you’ve got to bring your A-game because these midnight black-berries have several truly dangerous lookalikes that can do far worse than give you an upset stomach. And, happily, there are a few safe lookalikes, too.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you all about eight of them and how to identify them…
Table of Contents
1. Water Hemlock (Cicuta spp.)
It is easy to mistake water hemlock for elderberries, but it’s a mistake you don’t want to make.
This plant is one of the most toxic in North America, and thrives in and along wet areas in meadows, pastures, and stream banks.
A perennial herbaceous plant, water hemlock grows stout and tall, reaching heights of 4 to 6 feet with hollow stems arising from a cluster of tuberous roots.
Its flowers are small, white, and usually streaked or spotted with purple. But don’t be fooled by its innocent, almost ethereal appearance: all parts of this plant are poisonous, including those appealing, dark berries…
This was the same kind of poison used to kill the great Socrates, after all!
So if you come across a tall plant that looks like smaller elderberries but is growing in a wet area, avoid it as it could be the deadly water hemlock.
2. Gooseberry (Ribes spp.)
Gooseberries are another plant that can be mistaken for elderberries. Mercifully, these berries are actually safe to eat and quite tasty.
Gooseberries usually grow as small shrubs, typically ranging from 3 to 5 feet in height in cool, damp climates, often in the undergrowth of woods.
The thorny branches and produces plump, round berries that range in color from pale green to reddish-purple, but are rarely if ever as dark as mature elderberries, an easy giveaway.
The berries are also covered in tiny, veiny patterns which are distinct, and have an equally unique, tart and vaguely savory taste. Gooseberries are also quite healthy, containing lots of vitamin C.
However, do remember that while gooseberries are safe to consume, it’s critical to correctly identify them before eating.
If the plant has thorny branches and the berries have veiny patterns, then you’ve most likely stumbled upon a gooseberry bush, not elderberries.
Make sure you acquaint yourself with local species to be sure, though.
3. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
The blackthorn plant, also known as Prunus spinosa, is a sinister-sounding species that you might easily mistake for elderberries.
Luckily, the plants are quite different botanically though the indicators might evade folks who are only looking at the plum-like fruits.
A small deciduous tree (or shrub) that can grow up to 15 feet tall, it is endemic to Europe and Western Asia.
The blackthorn is a sturdy plant, capable of growing in various types of soil and thriving in full sun.
The plant is best known for producing those dark, ink-colored fruits that are subsequently used to make sloe gin, a beloved wintry liquor.
As the name suggests, the twigs of the Blackthorn are crowned with spines, but it has beautiful and delicate white blooms.
Blundering into a Blackthorn can easily cause injury if you aren’t careful, so watch where you’re walking!
4. Deerberries (Vaccinium stamineum)
Anywhere you might find elderberries you might instead come across deerberries, Vaccinium stamineum. Like elderberries, deerberries bear fruit but there are big differences you should note.
Regularly found in Eastern North America, deerberries are small shrubs that produce clusters of pretty, bell-shaped, white or pink flowers followed by large, green to yellowish berries.
These berries are incredibly bitter and astringent, and nowhere near as flavorful as elderberries whether they’re cooked or raw!
Although they’re not explicitly toxic, their near-total inedibility makes them unappealing for human consumption.
But, as you might have guessed, from the name, they’re a favorite of deer! Deerberries are also sometimes known by the common name of squaw huckleberry, so locally you might reference them as such.
5. Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)
In most North American forests, you might spot a cluster of small, round, dark berries. You might even think you’ve discovered wild elderberries, but upon closer inspection you discover that they are in fact blueberries.
That’s still a cause to celebrate as far as I am concerned!
You can tell because elderberries are bigger, darker and slightly oblong when ripe, where blueberries are smaller, almost perfectly round, and are pale colored when unripe and dark blue when ripe.
Blueberries are another plant native to North America, where they grow on upright bushes with woody stems and a shallow but highly fibrous root system.
Anywhere there is acidic soil and plenty of sunshine blueberry bushes can thrive. The berries themselves are wonderful when eaten fresh or used in all sorts of pies, muffins, pancakes, or just as a healthy snack.
And while elderberries need to be cooked before eating, blueberries can be enjoyed straight from the bush.
However, as always, be sure you’re indeed dealing with blueberries; misidentification (as elderberries or others) can lead to unpleasant or even deadly consequences!
6. Black Currant (Ribes nigrum)
Found predominately in Europe or Asia, you might mistake Black Currants for elderberries. Black Currants are unique, with their intense aroma and very sharp, sweet-and-sour taste.
These berries grow on glossy-leaved shrubs that reach up to 6 ½ feet in height. Unlike elderberries, black currant berries hang in clusters similar to grapes, and their leaves have a distinctive, strong smell when crushed.
While elderberries are often used in syrups and preserves, Black Currants are more popular for cordials and liqueurs.
7. Black Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. demissa)
Scientifically known as Prunus virginiana var. demissa, the Black Chokecherry is a plant native to most parts of North America and is capable of thriving in both sun and partial shade.
Growing as dense shrubs or even small trees upwards of 30 feet, and it often forms thickets providing excellent habitats for various wildlife species.
The distinctive bark of the Black Chokecherry is notably grayish or dusky tan and often described as scaly or “webbed”. The fruits turn black when ripe and can be used to make jellies, wines, and medicinal teas.
However, be aware that the seeds within the berries are toxic if crushed and consumed, and the intensity of the flesh can cause serious indigestion if not properly prepared or if overeaten.
8. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
A notorious perennial plant that produces ponderous clusters of large, dark berries, you might easily mistake Pokeweed for an elderberry bush.
Known scientifically as Phytolacca americana, Pokeweed is native to eastern North America and can grow to a mammoth 10 feet tall or even bigger.
Its distinctive features include its red-purple stems and large, smooth leaves.
In late summer, it produces dark purple berries that are highly toxic to humans and mammals, although birds can eat them without harm.
It has been a common cause of livestock deaths since practically forever as all the parts- roots, seeds, leaves and berries- are dangerous.
But almost unbelievably, the young leaves and shoots can be safely eaten as a vegetable if prepared and cooked properly.
In fact, it was once an important seasonal food source throughout Appalachia but today the practice has all but ended. In any case, you must steer clear of this immense and dangerous plant!
Tim is a farm boy with vast experience on homesteads, and with survival and prepping. He lives a self-reliant lifestyle along with his aging mother in a quiet and very conservative little town in Ohio. He teaches folks about security, prepping and self-sufficiency not just through his witty writing, but also in person.
Find out more about Tim and the rest of the crew here.