Elderberry or Water Hemlock?
The most common confused questions I hear on identification are about elderberries and the water hemlock. Had I not students such a confusion would have never occurred to me as to me the two species don’t look alike at all. Generally said elderberry fruit is edible, the entire water hemlock is deadly. Indeed, many call water hemlock the most deadly plant in North America. Learning to identify the two is very important.
The Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is a shrub with bark, to ten feet or more. Woody. Its blossom is a dense flattop. It produces, locally, black berries about BB size. It has opposite compound leaves, feathery. Most of the veins on the leaf either fade after leaving the midrib or terminate at the tip of the teeth, not in the notches. If you have a #10 magnifying glass you can see tiny veins terminating at the tips of the teeth. Occasionally an elderberry vein will terminate at a notch, but it is uncommon.
The Water Hemlock is herbaceous, two to seven feet. It has a green main stem with purple splotches, or is entirely dusky purple particularly when young. The sectioned, hollow stem has vertical grooves on the outside. It produces a fire cracker-like explosion white blossom that made up of many smaller umbrella-like blossoms. Those produce seeds, not fruit. It has alternating, compound leaves, coarse, toothy. On individual leaves most, not all, but most of the veins clearly terminate between the teeth, in the notches.
Let’s also talk about habitat. Both elderberries and water hemlock are associated with water. But there are some differences: Elderberries can tolerate more dry areas and Water Hemlock can grow in water. If you are in a dry area that is dry most of the time and you think you have one or the other it will probably be an elderberry. If you have damp ground it can be either. If it is standing water most of the time it will probably be water hemlock. Season also counts. Elderberries are year round locally. Water Hemlock can die back in the winter.
Now a closer look: Elderberries are shrubs. They are woody. They have bark. The bark is green and smooth when very young with occasional white dots that are actually lenticels, which is one way the plant exchanges gasses. With time and height the elderberry develops a familiar looking bark, smooth and brown. Now the lenticels are corky lumps seen at left. On much older plants the bark will become vertically furrowed. The inner core of the trunk and branches — the pith — is soft and can be easily reamed out. Not a long-lived plant, just a few years, it can grow to about four inches through. When it dies and dries it leaves a vertical standing small dead tree. The dead wood breaks easily and burns well.
The Water Hemlock is herbaceous, read not woody. It does not have bark. It has nodes, which are swellings where leaves attach or used to attach. The main stem has vertical groves in it and is hollow. It is often streaked with purple, or is splotched with purple. It is usually at least purple at the nodes and sometimes young plants can be entirely dusky purple. Ocassionally the entire older plant will be purple. A stem that is an inch through would be a large water hemlock. The plant is hairless. When crushed it can have a pleasant liquorish or anise scent. Remember it is deadly and can kill in virtually minutes. The toxicity decreases vertically with the roots the most toxic and the seeds the least. Taste is not a warning sign in that those who have eaten the roots raw or cooked said they were flavorful and very enjoyable. Depending upon the size of the individual, the amount consumed and which parts consumed death will occur in 15 minutes to a little over two hours. This is not the hemlock given to Socrates which was a gentle species. This species produces severe pain and convulsions, torturing its victim horribly until death.
The leaves of both species are different, not only from a distance but close up as well. The veins of the elderberry leaf either fade as they reach the edge of the leaf or terminate at the tip of the teeth. You may need a small magnifying class to see that. The veins are most prominent as they leave the light-colored midrib. Also note that the teeth are quite small, like the edge of a small serrated steak knife.
The veins of the water hemlock are quite different, actually of all the toxic herbaceous hemlocks are similar. (The hemlock tree is a totally different species and issue.) The veins of the water hemlock clearly terminate BETWEEN the larger teeth of the leaf. See arrows to right. There is no ambiguity. The veins end between the teeth. Even when a vein splits the split ends go to the notches, not to the tips of the leaf. There may be an occasional exception but the trend of the majority is very clear. You will note that while each species’ leaf has an acute tip (pointed) the elderberry leaf is round near the tip whereas the water hemlock leaf is not.
The elderberry is not without its dangers as well. The wood is toxic and has poisoned folks who have made whistles out of the green wood. Unripe elderberry fruit is toxic and the ripe fruit bothers some people. The ripe fruit is better used dried, cooked or made into wine or jelly than consumed raw.
To read more about different colored elderberries, click here.