Elderberry vs Hemlock; How To Identify – 4 Insanely Simple Tips

So why are we talking about elderberry vs hemlock? This is important as they are two very different things, and given that HerbiTea use elderberry in their Iron Fluorine tea, I though you should know about this.

Let’s be clear about this, some people would rather wildcraft their own ingredients to make their own products. If that’s you, we want to make sure that we’ve done something to highlight that there are considerations that need to be made in the interests of safety.

Considerations with Water Hemlock vs Elderberry

In the world of foraging it is important to know what is ok and what is not. There are a number of arguably poisonous elderberry look-alikes around. Depending on which part of the world you are in, these similar plants may be prolific.

The hemlock vs elderberry discussion should be approached from a perspective of gaining better understanding of what you are looking at, as to make a wrong choice in this area isn’t likely to turn out well.

There are a few main species of plants that are commonly known as hemlock that we will look at here. These are considered to be toxic and not suitable for consumption. As what some would say are poisonous elderberry lookalikes, they can easily include:

Conium Maculatum – Poison Hemlock

Also known as poison hemlock, this is a poisonous plant which is native to Europe and has been introduced to other parts of the world, including North America. It is a tall, slender plant with clusters of small white flowers, and produces seeds in small, round fruiting bodies. [1]

The leaves of the poison hemlock plant are finely divided and resemble those of parsley or fennel. They are alternate, pinnately compound, and have smooth margins. Poison hemlock is highly poisonous and can be deadly if ingested. [2]

Cicuta Virosa – Water Hemlock

Also known as water hemlock, this is a group of toxic plants that are native to North America and parts of Europe. [3]

They are often found near water sources, and are highly poisonous and can be deadly if ingested. [4]

The main difference is that with elderberry vs hemlock is that there is no berries to speak of on hemlock.

Cicuta Maculata – Spotted Water Hemlock

Also known as spotted water hemlock, this is a toxic plant that is also native to North America. It is also often found near water sources.

Spotted water hemlock is a tall, slender plant that can grow to a height of about 3-6 feet. It has clusters of small white flowers that appear in the spring or summer. The flowers are followed by small, round fruit that contains seeds.

The leaves of the spotted water hemlock plant are finely divided and resemble those of parsley or fennel. They are alternate, pinnately compound, and have smooth margins. [5]

elderflower-vs-elderberry-herbitea-iron-fluorine-tea
Here you can see the elderberries in the HerbiTea Iron Fluorine blend

Spotted water hemlock is highly poisonous and can be deadly if ingested. It is toxic to humans and animals and can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, spotted water hemlock can cause coma and death. [6]

Key Differences Between Elderberry and Water Hemlock

Looking at elderberry vs hemlock, specifically water hemlock in this case, they are two completely different plants. Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) is a shrub or small tree that is native to parts of Europe, North America, and Asia. Water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), as mentioned in the section above, on the other hand, is a toxic plant that is native to North America and parts of Europe.

It is important to be able to distinguish water hemlock from other plants, especially if you are foraging for food or medicinal plants. [7]

When it comes to elderberry look alikes, it is more likely that you will come across water hemlock or poison hemlock, which are easily mistaken to the untrained eye for elderflower as a flowering stage of the plant’s life cycle. This is much more probable than hemlock being mistaken for elderberries.

How to Safely Identify Elderberry Plants – 4 Tips

Elderberry identification can be broken down into a few key areas. To identify elderberry plants, look for the following characteristics:

  1. Leaves
    • Elderberry plants have opposite, compound leaves that are made up of 5-9 leaflets. The leaflets are oval or lance-shaped, and have smooth edges.
  2. Flowers
    • Elderberry plants have clusters of small, white or cream-colored flowers that bloom in the spring and summer. The flowers are about 1 inch in diameter and have a sweet, fragrant smell.
  3. Berries
    • Elderberry plants have dark purple or black berries that ripen in the fall. The berries are small (about 1/4 inch in diameter) and are usually found in clusters.
  4. Habitat
    • Elderberry plants are typically found in moist, well-drained soils in wooded areas, meadows, and along streams and rivers.

Remember, to avoid a potentially toxic elderberry lookalike in similar habitats, where hemlock can also be found, that they are visually quite different. The leaves might be your best starting point.

Looking at Elderberry vs Pokeberry

Elderberry may at times be mistaken for Pokeberry. This too can be problematic as Pokeberry is toxic.

Pokeberry is also known as pokeweed and the berries, leaves, stems, and roots of the plant are all poisonous. Consuming these can cause a range of symptoms from nausea, to vomiting, abdominal pain, and difficulty breathing.

In severe cases, pokeweed poisoning can lead to coma or death. It is important to note that pokeweed should be avoided, as it can be very toxic even in small amounts. If you believe that you or someone you know has ingested pokeweed, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. [8, 9]

Looking at Elderberry vs Sumac

For some reason, sumac tends to come up as a point of confusion with elderberry based on some of the conversations I’ve had too. Although it has no real similarities to elderberry, it is worth noting that to mix these two up could produce dire results.

The confusion here may be connected to there being species of Sumac that are safe to consume, and species that are not safe to consume.

And there is Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), which has a sour and tart flavor and is used to make a lemonade-like drink, and the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), which has a slightly sweet and fruity flavor and is often used to add flavor to salads, grains, and meats.

Both of these plants are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes Poison Sumac and other plants that can cause allergic reactions. Staghorn sumac is native to North America and is known for its velvety, antler-like branches and red berries. Smooth sumac is also native to North America and is distinguished by its smooth, shiny branches and red berries. Both plants are commonly found in wooded areas and along roadsides.

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), as mentioned above, is a plant that can cause an allergic reaction when its oils come into contact with the skin. The reaction can vary in severity, but it can cause redness, itching, and blistering of the skin. [10]

Looking at Elderberry vs Devil’s Walking Stick

Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) is a common name for the plant Aralia spinosa, which is also known as Hercules’ club or prickly ash. It is a tall, woody shrub or small tree that is native to the eastern United States.

Devil’s walking stick is known for its large, compound leaves and long, spiky stems, which are covered in sharp thorns. The plant produces clusters of small, white flowers in the summer, which are followed by black or purplish berries.

Devil’s walking stick is often found in wooded areas and along streams and is known to be resistant to drought and a variety of soil conditions.

The plant has been used medicinally by Native American cultures and is believed to have a number of health benefits, although more research is needed to confirm these effects. [11, 12]

The timing of the collection appears to be key given that research has sown that there is a potential for cyanogenesis. More on cyanogenesis in a little while. [13]

The fruit and leaves of the devil’s walking stick plant are not poisonous and are reportedly edible, although they are not commonly consumed due to their bitter taste.

However, the plant’s sharp thorns can cause injury if they come into contact with skin, and the plant’s sap may cause skin irritation in some people. It is not considered to be a poisonous plant, but it is important to be cautious when handling it due to its spiky stems. [14]

What is Cyanogenesis?

Cyanogenesis is the process by which plants produce hydrogen cyanide, a toxic chemical compound.

Some plants, like Aralia spinosa (Devil’s walking stick) produce cyanogenic compounds, which can release hydrogen cyanide when they are damaged or broken down in the digestive system of animals. These compounds are produced as a defense mechanism to protect the plant from being eaten by herbivores.

In humans, cyanide can interfere with the body’s ability to use oxygen and can be toxic if ingested or inhaled in large amounts.

However, many plants that produce cyanogenic compounds also have other beneficial properties, and small amounts of cyanogenic compounds are present in a variety of foods that are commonly consumed, such as almonds, cassava, and flaxseeds.

It is generally considered safe to consume these foods in small amounts, but consuming large amounts of cyanogenic compounds can be harmful.

Some people I have spoken with in the past have confused Cyanogenesis with Cyanogen chloride. They are not the same as each other.

Cyanogen chloride is a chemical compound that is used as a chemical intermediate and a fumigant. It is a highly toxic and corrosive gas that can be lethal if inhaled or ingested.

It can be produced through the reaction of hydrochloric acid and a cyanide compound, such as sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide. It is not produced naturally by plants and is not related to cyanogenesis, which is the process by which some plants produce hydrogen cyanide as a defense mechanism.

Cyanogen chloride has a number of industrial uses, but it is also a chemical warfare agent and has been used in the past as a chemical weapon. It is classified as a Schedule 3 chemical under the Chemical Weapons Convention and its production and use are strictly regulated.

I bet that was a little more than what you first expected from the elderberry vs hemlock discussion!

Elderberry vs Hemlock FAQs

Does Poison Hemlock look like Elderberry?

No, poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and elderberry (Sambucus spp.) are two different plants that do not resemble each other.

Elderberry plants are shrubs or small trees that can grow to a height of about 10-15 feet. They will blossom with clusters of cream-colored or white flowers which tend to be rather small. These flowers will appear in the spring or summer.

The flowers are followed by small, black or purple berries that can be rather dark which are found to be ripe in the late summer or early fall. The leaves of the elderberry plant are opposite, pinnately compound, and have serrated margins.

Poison hemlock, on the other hand, is a tall, slender plant that can grow to a height of about 6-10 feet. It has clusters of small white flowers that appear in the spring or summer. The flowers are followed by small, round fruit that contains seeds. The leaves of the poison hemlock plant are finely divided and resemble those of parsley or fennel. They are alternate, pinnately compound, and have smooth margins. [7]

It is important to be able to distinguish these plants from each other, especially if you are foraging for food or medicinal plants. If you are unsure about the identification of a plant, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable expert or a reliable source.

What can be Mistaken for Elderberry?

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is sometimes mistaken for elderberry. This is considered to be poisonous, or at the lease rather unpalatable depending on who you ask.

The plant that is native to North America. It is similar in appearance to elderberry, but its berries are red rather than black or purple. The berries and other parts of the plant are generally considered to be toxic and can cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and weakness if ingested.

As far as the flowering body goes, it is possible to confuse elderflower with hemlock if you aren’t well versed in these two plants. Such a mistake can be more than a little costly.

What can be Mistaken for Hemlock?

Other than the potential confusion between elderflower and hemlock, there is enough evidence to suggest that confusion and misidentification of other plants with hemlock may include:

Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) – This plant, also known as Queen Anne’s lace, is native to Europe and Asia and is commonly found in fields and along roadsides. It is distinguished by its lacy white flowers and thin, hairless stems. It is not poisonous, but it can be mistaken for hemlock due to its similarity in appearance.

Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium) – This plant is native to Europe and is commonly found in meadows and along roadsides. It is distinguished by its small, white flowers and fern-like leaves. It is poisonous and can be mistaken for hemlock due to its similarity in appearance.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) – This plant is native to Europe and is commonly found in meadows and along roadsides. It is distinguished by its small, white flowers and fern-like leaves. It is not poisonous, but it can be mistaken for hemlock due to its similarity in appearance.

Are Hemlock Berries Edible?

No. The fruit that hemlock produces is toxic and should not be consumed. The toxin produced by hemlock is called coniine. [15]

Does Hemlock Have Berries?

Hemlock doesn’t fruit as berries per se. It does produce a fruit-like body which is inedible.

Conclusion

This may seem a little one-sided to those who are experienced with using various plants for their medicinal purposes, and could even trigger some who believe that hemlock is safe to use.

Considering the nature of the elderberry vs hemlock discussion, and regardless of there being evidence of coniine being used as a sedative and antispasmodic, it is best to avoid consuming any part of the hemlock plant. [16]

References

  1. “Conium maculatum” – Wikipedia, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [Wikipedia] [Archive]
  2. “Poison-hemlock identification and control” – King Country Stafff, 29 January 2019 [King County] [Archive]
  3. “Cicuta virosa” – Wikipedia, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [Wikipedia] [Archive]
  4. “Cicuta virosa: the most poisonous plant growing in North America” – L. Yujun, 12 September 2019 [CGTN] [Archive]
  5. “Cicuta maculata” – Wikipedia, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [Wikipedia] [Archive]
  6. “Poisoning With Water Hemlock (Cicuta Maculata) Report of Seventeen Cases” – L. M. Gompertz, 16 October 1926 [JAMA Network] [Archive]
  7. “Water Hemlock A Deadly Poisonous Plant” – M. Peziol, Last Accessed 1 January 2023 [Alderleaf Wilderness College] [Archive]
  8. “Pokeweed poisoning” – K. A. Jaeckle, F. R. Freemon, May 1981 [PubMed] [Archive]
  9. “Illinois Grazing Manual Fact Sheet – Common Pokeweed” – Department of Agriculture Staff, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [USDA] [Archive]
  10. “Poison Sumac” – New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [NYS DEC] [Archive]
  11. “American Civil War plant medicines inhibit growth, biofilm formation, and quorum sensing by multidrug-resistant bacteria” – M. Dettweiler, J. T. Lyles, K. Nelson, B. Dale, R. M. Reddinger, D. V. Zurawski, C. L. Quave, May 2019 [PubMed] [Archive]
  12. “The Phytochemistry of Cherokee Aromatic Medicinal Plants” – W. N. Setzer, 12 November 2018 [PubMed] [Archive]
  13. “Cyanogenesis in Aralia spinosa (Araliaceae)” – M. Lechtenberg, J. Sendker, L. Kastner, A. Hensel, October 2022 [PubMed] [Archive]
  14. “Aralia spinosa” – North Carolina State University Staff, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [North Carolina State University] [Archive]
  15. “The killer of Socrates: Coniine and Related Alkaloids in the Plant Kingdom” – H. Hotti, H. Rischer, 14 November 2017 [PubMed] [Archive]
  16. “Hemlock” – M. Grieve, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [Botanical] [Archive]

About the Author

Matthew has been on an active journey towards living a healthy life from a young age. Influenced by his Grandmother, a practicing Naturopath who served her community from the 1940's to the 1980's, his views on living holistically were shaped from a young age. Growing up in different parts of Australia, his connection with the Ocean and a passion for sustainability comes through in everything he does and shares.

"I'm not a Doctor, and I don't play one on the Internet." - me

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