Elderberry or Water Hemlock?

by Green Deane

Ripe Elderberry fruit

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.

Elderberry blooms are irregular flattops. Photo by Green Deane

Elderberry blooms are irregular flattops. Photo by Green Deane

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.

Water Hemlock blossoms are small umbrellas that make up a larger umbrella.

Water Hemlock blossoms are small umbrellas that make up a larger umbrella.

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.

Elderberry Bark

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.

Water Hemlock Stem and Node

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, or it can also smell like mouse urine. 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.

Elderberry leaf vains fade or terminate at the tips of the teeth.

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.

Water Hemlock veins terminate in the notches

The veins of the water hemlock are quite different.  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.

Lastly, the “hemlock” tree is a totally different species and issue. To read more about different colored elderberries, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jorgielyn Serfino January 3, 2016 at 04:12

I have eaten an elder-like type of berry but its leaves are flat and oval and stems are mainly green. What kind of berry is it? Is it edible?

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Green Deane January 4, 2016 at 15:54

Without a picture that could be made different species.

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Mary August 17, 2015 at 03:30

Hi! Thank you for your descriptions. However I am anxious about whether I am doing the right thing considering the dangers/risks of making an error! I am making elderberry cordial from the bunches of mostly ripe ‘elderberries’. Are there any dangers to a pregnant lady when picking the fruit or in drinking the cordial (if we eventually have the courage)? We found the trees abundantly laden with elderberry fruit in our local park. One comment/observation I will make is that the leaf IS bulbous before it elongates to a defined point. As for the veins they are tiny……….. difficult to see. leaves are directly opposite each other. Fruit hangs in bunches/clusters with no gaps – strikes me because of your ‘umbrella’ description of hemlock flowers that the berries would have a different distribution with recognisable gaps.
Please reply or comment. The juice is ready for the next stage ie adding sugar! Thank you

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margo June 19, 2015 at 11:31

I’m in northern Florida and I have a 7 foot bush with leaves and stems which look like water hemlock but the white flowers are like little pyramids ( nothing like elderberry or in the carrot family) and each year it gets purple fruit on the same little pyramid the flowers were on.

The birds adore these fruits in the fall and the plant dies back in our winters and comes back in the spring.

Can you identify it for me ? Thanks.

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Green Deane June 19, 2015 at 15:02

A privet is a possibility as is a crepe myrtle

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Dorothy Regazzi June 14, 2015 at 19:12

I have a bush on my property that resembles an elderberry, but it is more viney. The flowers are similar to the elderberry, and the leaves are 5 per stem, toothed and shaped like an elderberry. The fruit is similar to the elderberry, but never fully gets to the size of the elderberry fruit although it is on the end of the stem as the elderberry and is organized the same way. The white flowers are a smaller cluster and are similar to a rosaceae. Can you help me to identify it. It is growing under a pine tree in an open field.

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Green Deane June 15, 2015 at 12:27

Where on earth are you?

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Jeremiah August 9, 2016 at 14:00

That’s Virginia creeper, and it’s poisonous. I have wild grapes everywhere here, and the creeper grows right in with them.

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Green Deane May 13, 2014 at 08:35

The article is correct. I’ve also added that sometimes it can smell like mouse urine, as if that is a help to most of us…

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Carl in Texas May 7, 2014 at 19:25

Your article piqued my interest. Researched a bit. Then yesterday I saw (recognized) my first water hemlock. I was doing 70 down a desolate stretch of highway, but I knew what it was immediately. Stopped to check it out more closely. Sure enough, water hemlock growing profusely. Thanks much for the continuing education.

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Amanda Webster October 5, 2013 at 23:46

What a great article! My father always told me when in doubt never eat smooth round berries in the wild. This is a wonderful description of an edible one. Thanks!

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Shelley Johnston October 1, 2013 at 17:58

what an excellent description, I was just agonising over whether what I had picked this afternoon were in fact elderberries or hemlock ( a friend said it was possible to confuse them) I am in the UK, but if hemlock does not have berries then I am home and dry I think. Also it was from a small tree, at least 8 or 9 feet high so that pretty much eliminates all poisonous hemlock species, doesn’t it?

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Green Deane October 1, 2013 at 19:16

If you have a tree not an herb then you do not have the toxic herb called hemlock.

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Kathleen Barry June 17, 2013 at 23:34

Really appreciated the description of water hemlock. I saw some lovely huge white flowers blooming in a ditch beside the road and picked them. When I tried to identify them, I was pretty certain (and shocked) it was water hemlock. I found that it’s hard to find a description for water hemlock in any weed book I have. When I read your description, I was left with absolutely no doubt. THANKS.

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sue June 7, 2013 at 16:36

I have quite a few trees that I have been told are “elder trees”. Are they related to the elderberry plants? The blooms are real close to the elderberry blooms but are 4 petaled. Are they edible? I have pictures of the blooms and the leaves. Thanks for all the great information!!!

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Jaclyn July 13, 2012 at 09:18

Water Hemlock doesnt get berries on it. Right? I have found that it seams to resemble a wild carrot. I shy away from looking for wild carrot in fear I will accidently get wild hemlock instead.
I 100% know what an elder tree looks like because I forage them in my hard all the time.
There is some other japaneses something or other tree that grows right next to my elder that looks like elder but the flower puffs grow different then elder and the berries are in smaller bundles and dont droop or get as big as elder berrie bunches. I wish I had wrote down what type of tree that was.
Such a big big world of plants out there. Its difficult to remember all this. 🙂 (practice makes perfect)

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Green Deane July 13, 2012 at 11:16

Water hemlock has seeds, not berries.

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johanna July 11, 2012 at 02:15

hi-
i am always confused with wild fennel, wild dill, and water hemlock because of the purple stems and flower heads-

re-elderberry:
by the way, my mother is Danish, and we grew up with a great amazing Scandinavian traditional use of elderberries: elderberry soup!! it was used as a warm savory dish with a dollop of sour cream–so a bit like Russian Borsht in look and consistency. it was especially good for colds and flus.

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Adam May 30, 2012 at 14:41

I was confused between Watercress and Water Hemlock. The Water Hemlock information was very helpful, thank you. I am now confident that what I found is Watercress.

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Hank Fannin May 21, 2012 at 15:31

Green,
That’s the best description I’ve ever seen and certainly makes it clear for me. I just found what I thought might be Water Hemlock and sure enough, after reading your blog – that’s what it be. Thanks.

Hank Fannin

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josh yingling June 11, 2012 at 09:57

Hey hank this is josh, the tall fellow that took you’re class last year the friend of Craig (in the wheel chair).funny seeing you on this website.let me know of your next class I go to church with the owner of that property. And Deane do you have a post on swamp titi? I’m trying to identify h this small shrub and haven’t seen it blossom but it grows right near elderberry just not as tall, looks very similar though.

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Sue April 25, 2015 at 15:02

josh yingling may I ask what is this ” swamp titi ” you speak of ? I love the Eleder Lady flower!

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