Elderberry shrubs (Sambucus canadensis) can grow to the size of small trees and sometimes form thickets. They grow in moist to wet environments, including around wetlands, streams, canals and lakes. Elderberries are a favourite, especially in the southeast. They can be made into jams, preserves, syrups, pies and wine. The edible berries are packed with both vitamin A and vitamin C. The rest of the plant is inedible for humans and toxic if ingested, but the leaves sometimes provide browsing for deer. Unfortunately, it can easily be mistaken for the very poisonous water hemlock (Cicuta mexicana) and so it's important to know exactly what you're looking for.
Identifying elderberry bushes is easiest when they are in bloom. They produce showy clusters of small white flowers that are flat on top and between 6 to 12 inches wide. Even if you see these flowers, approach the plant with caution and wear gloves when inspecting them. You don't even want to touch a water hemlock plant.
Check the leaves without touching the plant directly. Elderberry has compound leaves that are arranged oppositely, meaning that the leaflets along its stems are paired, growing opposite one another, although there may be a single leaflet at the end of the stem. Water hemlock has leaves that are alternate, meaning they grow on one side, then the other, with space between the two.
Inspect the leaves to see that they are basically oval in shape, with a sharp point at the end. The edges should be serrated and the underside of the leaf is a paler green than the upper side. Crush the leaf and sniff it carefully. Elderberry leaves release an unpleasant and acrid smell.
Examine the stems without touching. The stems of the water hemlock have purple stripes, whereas the elderberry does not. Snap or cut the stem. Elderberry shrubs have white or light grey pith inside, while the water hemlock has a hollow pith.
Elderberries are purplish black and about ¼ inch in diameter and grow in clusters in late summer and early autumn. They're a favourite with many varieties of birds.
Elderberry stems, bark and leaves can be dangerous if ingested. The berries should never be eaten raw, but are safe after they're cooked.