The following is a “guest” post from my hubby- the guy who really knows his plants around here. We recently thought we spotted elderberries at a friend’s house- but Tim’s discerning eye second guessed our initial identification. Read on to find out how to distinguish these two look-alike plants from each other.
Elderberries are ripening this time of year where we live, so if you have any interest in harvesting these berries, it is as good a time as ever to nail down your elderberry identification skills. Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra) shrubs are pretty distinctive, but if you are not paying close attention to what you are seeing, mistaking other plants for them is not impossible. At certain stages of development, a couple plants in particular appear the closest of all to Elderberry: the Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum) and the Redosier (Red Osier) Dogwood (cornus sericea). To complicate the trouble of precisely identifying Redosier Dogwood in contrast to the Silky Dogwood, Redosier is a variable species, which essentially means that its morphology is not always the same–different specimens can look different from each other. For our purposes, though, that is not very important; we are trying to distinguish the Dogwoods from Elderberry, not so much from each other.
If you take the time to google “elderberry look-alikes,” your search results will likely include references to Water Hemlock and Pokeberry–the former deathly poisonous and the latter arguably poisonous if used improperly. Aside from the risk-factor of mistaking those plants for Elderberry (which has its own share of toxicity-risks), there is almost no reason to fear mistaking Water Hemlock or Pokeberry for Elderberry. Those two plants are markedly different from Elderberry in fairly obvious ways–I won’t go into them in detail now, but suffice it to say, when identifying a plant, don’t hinge your identification on only one feature (e.g. berries, drupes or flowers growing in cyme patterns). Pay attention to the overall habit of the plant–the location, the time, duration, and color of the flowers (if any), whether it is woody or herbaceous, the pattern and color of the bark, a general sampling of the leaves–opposite, alternate, whorled–from many parts of the plant, the shape, margins, and vein structure of the leaves, the characteristics of the fruit, etc. If you observe carefully and thoroughly, and especially if you begin to learn the vocabulary of kingdom Plantae and attach deeper meaning to your sensory experience of these objects, you will gradually become more accurate in plant identification.
Having said that, let’s return to the Silky Dogwood. Here’s a close-up of its lovely flower cyme (that’s the name of that cluster pattern):
And here’s the Redosier Dogwood:
For comparison, here is the Black Elderberry bloom:
Certainly these flower clusters look similar. But that is not the only similarity they share (I’ll get to the differences in a moment). They both tend to grow in wet locations–though both are very tolerant plants–so you may even find them growing together (as we did recently).
The main thing that makes these Dogwoods more likely candidates for elderberry confusion than other look-alikes like Pokeberry and Water Hemlock is the fact that they too are shrubs of very similar proportions (from 6-10′ high) to elderberry. Look at the Silky Dogwood for example:
And here, the Black Elderberry:
Clearly there are differences between them, but at least we are dealing with similar types of plants. The most conspicuous distinguishing features between these Dogwoods and the Elderberry, however, are in the leaves and the fruits. Elderberry leaves are compound. Silky Dogwood and Redosier Dogwood leaves are simple. Elderberry leaf margins are toothed. The dogwood leaves are smooth. Study the following images to note the differences between the Elderberry leaf on the left and the Redosier Dogwood leaves on the right:
Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum):
Redosier Dogwood (cornus sericea):
And finally, Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra):
Let’s turn to the berries and drupes. Note first the density and size of the cymes in both dogwoods as compared to the elderberry. The dogwoods’ cymes are smaller and less dense than the elderberry’s (obviously the presence of berries or drupes will depend on fertilization), but the dogwoods’ drupes are larger than elderberries. Also be aware of the color of the fruit (this is one of the best ways to discern whether you’re dealing with a silky or redosier, too). At least where we live, elderberries ripen to a rich deep purple well before the silky or redosier fruits ripen. Thus, if you see ripe elderberries side by side with a dogwood, you should see that the dogwood fruits are still green. Observe the following photo; Redosier in the foreground, Elderberry in the background (just a few of the elderberries are starting to turn purple):
And finally, just for contrast, Black Elderberry:
So, to recap, pay close attention to these distinguishing features:
|Leaves||Leaf Margins||Fruit Color when Ripe||Time of ripening|
|Sambucus Nigra||Compound||Toothed||Deep Purple||Late July–September|
|Cornus Amomum||Simple||Smooth||Blue||Around September|
|Cornus Sericea||Simple||Smooth||White||After September|
I hope at least some of this information is helpful. Do remember–if you are not sure what a plant is, first work hard to figure it out (because maybe you’ll learn something new). If you can’t figure it out with reasonable confidence, then don’t eat it for now–you’ll probably get another opportunity in the future!