Elderberry vs Poke Berry Identification

Learn to distinguish elderberry from poisonous pokeberry.

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Photo by Fotolia/denio109
European elderberries (S. nigra).

Elder (Sambucus canadensis, s.nigra), known as the “people’s medicine chest”, is one of my favorite allies.  In my backyard “elder forest” they grow as something between a bush and small trees at a height of 10-13 feet.  In June, I use elderflowers in delicious edible and medicinal preparations, but leave plenty of flower umbrels to form berries. Mid August-early Sept. when the berries are ripe,  I harvest and make elderberry syrup, oxymels, and alcohol extract (tincture) for immune system support, especially during cold/flu season. *  Herbalist Paul Bergner points out that elderberry preparations not only boost the immune system, but also directly inhibit the influenza virus by disarming the virus of its ability to penetrate healthy cells and multiply there.

Elderberries are edible and medicinal,  but it’s suggested that you cook them (e.g., in pies, muffins, jams, sauces), or make elderberry syrup, alcohol extract (tincture), vinegars, or wine/meads,etc.  There is mildly toxic cyanoglycoside sambunigrin in the leaves and unripe berries;  the seeds also contain a resin which can cause nausea and intestinal upset; this resin is destroyed by cooking.

Both elder and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) have deep dark purple-black berries that can be found in early fall (August to Sept) in most regions. Pokeweed plant is considered toxic and poisonous, unless you are an herbalist or knowledgeable about using it. You wouldn’t want to pick and eat poke berries. Last year, a young woman shared with me that she and her friends were going to pick elderberries on her friend’s land.  The next day, she called to thank me for showing her my elderberry bushes, because the berries her friends planned to pick were in fact poke berry.  Furthermore, my gardener friend noticed baggies of poke berries mislabeled as “elderberries” at a farmer’s market and informed the seller.   

Every year to avoid the confusion  and illustrate the important distinction , I post images of Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) on my  Prairie Magic Herbals Facebook page. However, I have often heard beginners and others at classes and herb conferences express frustration at the inadequacy of photos in plant identification guidebooks. With that in mind,  I hope that these two videos from my garden prove even more helpful in distinguishing elder and poke berry.

Difference Between Elderberry and Pokeweed Part 1 (elderberry)

Difference Between Elderberry and Pokeweed Part 2 (pokeweed)

*All material is for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom.. It does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of the herbs/plants discussed and Joanne Bauman, Prairie Magic Herbals assumes no responsibility for the results of self-diagnosis and/or self-medication. If you are on other medications/ drugs, or are pregnant or breastfeeding or have a diagnosed medical condition, please consult your health care professional before taking any herbs/botanicals.


“Elder Toxicity”. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage  http://www.henriettes-herb.com/blog/elder-toxicity.html

“Sambucus: Elderberry” by Paul Bergner. Medical Herbalism 01-31-97 8(4): 1, 11-12  http://medherb.com/Materia_Medica/Sambucus_-_Elderberry_%28Sambucus_nigra,_canadensis%29.htm

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