Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Elderberry

Photo of Black Elderberry flower cluster

Here in southern Maine, Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is blooming, which makes now a great time to notice this widespread shrub. Black Elderberry typically grows in moist soils, so look for the bright white flower clusters lighting roadside gullies and the edges of small streams. Many of these clusters will produce forage-able purple/black fruits by September, but the flowers themselves can also be tinctured or dried for tea.

In Holistic Herbal (1990), David Hoffman writes that preparations of Black Elderberry flowers are "ideal for the treatment of colds and influenza" (p. 197). Consult his book or another trusted herbal reference for more details on making medicine with this plant.

Field marks for Black Elderberry include large, flat-topped flower clusters with hundreds of tiny 5-petaled flowers*, pinnately-compound leaves arranged oppositely along stems, toothed leaflets, and young stems and older bark with obvious freckles (technically lenticels). These features are shown in the following images. (To view them in full-size, click here.)

*Warning: Do not confuse Black Elderberry flowers with those of Spotted Water-hemlock.

Note: See the comments section for a discussion on Elderberry toxicity and the edibility of Red Elderberry flowers and fruits.

4 thoughts on “Foraging Wild Flowers: Black Elderberry”

    1. What part(s) in particular were you referring to?

      My understanding is that Red Elderberry (Sambucas racemosa) flowers can be used similarly, though I don’t have direct experience with consuming either flowers or fruit of that species.

      Sam Thayer (in Nature’s Garden, 2010) says, “Red elder flowers can be used for tea like other elder flowers, although I do not like them as much” (p. 412).

      And regarding the fruit, on page 410 Thayer writes, “It is commonly written that red elderberries (Sambucas racemosa, S. pubens, S. callicarpa, depending on the classification followed) are inedible or even poisonous, even though it is well documented that they were a widely used and important food source for First Nations in the Pacific Northwest (Turner, 1975), and they are still eaten there and elsewhere today. However, they should always be cooked as the raw berries are reported to be toxic and cause nausea [emphasis in the original].” Additionally, in Green Deane’s Elderberry article, he writes about First Peoples’ removing the seeds from Red Elderberry fruits before consumption.

      That said, all other parts of Black and Red Elderberry, aside from the flowers and ripe fruits, are toxic and therefore not to be consumed.

      For a thorough discussion of Black, Red, and Blue Elderberry (the latter, a western species), see pages 399-412 of Nature’s Garden as well as Green Deane’s article (link above).

  1. Gorgeous photos! And thanks for this timely post – I’ve been meaning to look up the field marks for it since you showed it to us on the Gilsland walk!

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