Elderberry shrubs are sought after for both their berries and flowers. Everything from fairy and elf visitations to great wine, jam, good health and beauty is attributed to elderberries. It is a member of the honeysuckle family and may grow up to 13 feet high. Important since ancient times, learning to identify and use the prized elderberry is still a valuable skill today.
Locating elderberry patches is easier when the plants are in full bloom. This happens during late spring and early summer. Look in moist areas, such as along riversides, fence rows and near ponds. Sometimes they may be growing alongside a road near a swamp or river, in marshes or along railroad tracks. They grow in large patches, so where you find one, you will usually find many more. Look for white, tiny, lacy and branched flowers in slightly rounded clusters and immature fruit clusters. The flowers generally spread out about 6 inches. It's abundant in the eastern section of North America and the West Indies.
Once you've spotted some flowers, or if you are searching in winter or fall when there are no flowers, you next look at the bark to identify elderberry. The bark is smooth and gray, but it has conspicuous spots. The spots are like raised bumps. They are usually red, brown or black and anywhere from 1 to 4 mm in diameter. Inside the branches, you'll find a spongy white pith.
The leaves are divided into segments called leaflets. The leaf has 5 to 11 pointed, short-stalked leaflets that are about 3 to 4 inches long. The serrated leaflets are oval-shaped with a pointed tip.
The elderberry will ripen in mid-summer or early fall. Look for tiny, purple-black or black seedy berries. They grow barely 1/8 inch across in branched clusters, as did the flowers. They usually produce in large quantities so the fruit will probably weigh the branches down. The berries are not sweet.
To collect the flowers, pluck them off the stalk at the base of the cluster. Do not remove all the flowers as that will keep the fruit from growing. Collect the flowers where they are most abundant, picking some while leaving some. Gathering the berries in mid-summer is a very similar process. Don't bother to pluck them one by one. Gather them from the base of the cluster and then separate them at home.