Pokeweed vs Elderberry; How To Avoid 3 Big Risky Mistakes

So, what’s the deal with pokeweed and why are so many people trying to figure out how to tell the difference between it and elderberry? Getting these two mixed up can literally be fatal. This is why the pokeweed vs elderberry discussion is so important.

Stick with me while I walk you through how these two berries, and plants they come from are worlds apart!

Elderberry vs Pokeberry, Lookalikes and Considerations

Recently, I was asked ‘are pokeweed and elderberry the same thing?’

No, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and elderberry (Sambucus) are two very different plants. Pokeweed. This is definitely the single most important factor to consider when looking at the pokeweed vs elderberry discussion.

Let’s consider the surface differences between pokeweed and elderberry. Is pokeberry poisonous or is it safe to use?

Pokeberry, or pokeweed is a native perennial plant that is commonly found in many gardens and abandoned fields across the United States.

It has large, pointed leaves and produces clusters of small, purple berries. As a plant which is known to be poisonous, Pokeweed and it’s berries should not be ingested. [1, 2]

Elderberry, on the other hand, is a shrub or small tree that is native to Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. It has clusters of small, white or pink flowers and produces small, dark berries.

The berries and flowers of the elderberry plant are commonly used in herbal remedies and to make various foods and condiments. Elderberry is generally considered safe to consume in moderate amounts when properly prepared, but some people may have allergic reactions to it.

Check out this article which cover how to prepare elderberries: Can Elderberries Be Eaten Raw? 6 Secrets You Need To Know.

Why are we looking at the pokeweed vs elderberry comparison here? We have a product listed in our online store which contains elderberry (HerbiTea’s Iron Fluorine tea).

Sometimes, some people take it upon themselves to forage for ingredients in products listed online, and if this is the type of thing you choose to do, we want to make sure that we are very clear that there can be risks in doing this if you don’t know for sure what you are looking at.

pokeweed vs elderberry
HerbiTea Iron Fluorine Tea

I was fortunate enough to have a Grandmother who was a very skilled Naturopath, and her husband, my Grandfather (who I called Poppin) was a man of the land. He taught me how to forage, fish, and hunt. Some of the things that appeared edible he taught me were quite far from it.

So, it is from this place of caring that I want to caution the Foragers about potential mix ups.

Poisonous Elderberry Lookalikes

Making the mistake of picking something that looks like elderberry and consuming it could prove to be something that you have a very hard time coming back from. Some of these lookalikes are more than a little toxic, and they can be fatal.

If you don’t know for sure what you are looking at, then it’s a good idea to avoid putting it in your mouth, and maybe even on your skin.

Also, some toxic plants can give off smoke that is harmful when burning. So you may want to keep this in mind if you’re the outdoorsy type who like to build a fire.

Some Elderberry Lookalikes to Consider

The main elderberry look alikes that we have taken a deeper dive into which you need to be aware of can be found here:

You may also find the Elderberry vs Inkberry (A.K.A Gallberry Holly) comparison interesting.

Some may be poisonous on lower levels than others, but that isn’t to say that it is worth risking your health in using something that could still be very dangerous.

Is Elderberry Safe to Eat?

Some people believe that elderberry is poisonous regardless of how it has been prepared. This is certainly the case for many parts of the plant, but not the ripe berries and the flowers that bear the berries.

What makes elderberry poisonous? The unripe berries should be treated the same as the leaves, branches, stems and roots of the plant which contain sambunigrin. The immature berries are said to have approximately 0.8% sambunigrin content in them. [3]

The root of the plant is apparently the most toxic with the highest concentration of sambunigrin. We looked more closely at sambunigrin in a pervious article and how it poses a toxicity threat. [4]

Typically, elderberries, once appropriately prepared are generally considered safe and are able to be consumed. However, you might want to speak with your Doctor or Dietitian first to make sure they are right for you.

You may also want to check out:

A Closer Look at Pokeweed Phytolacca Americana

Phytolacca Americana, also known as American pokeweed or pokeberry contains a number of chemicals that can be toxic to humans, including phytolaccine, which is a type of saponin.

Saponins are plant-derived compounds that have a soapy or foamy consistency and can cause irritation to the skin and mucous membranes. [5]

Ingestion of Phytolacca Americana or products made from the plant can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Are there any Medicinal Uses of Pokeberry?

Are there any pokeweed medicinal uses, or should you avoid this plant?

Pokeweed has a history of being used in various folk remedies. As much as I’m cautioning you here about avoiding mixing these up with regard to pokeweed vs elderberry, it is in the interests of transparency that it is worth noting that there are beneficial uses of this plant in specific circumstances.

However, if you’re not proficient in working with something, it’s not a good idea to try and blaze a trail. Particularly when the consequences of making mistakes can be as serious as with something like pokeberry.

Some of the research into this plant and it’s potential applications include antiviral activity and anti-inflammatory activity. [6]

3 Pokeweed vs Elderberry Big Mistakes

  1. Mistaking the berries from pokeweed for elderberry
    • Pokeberries are extremely toxic and should never be consumed.
  2. Consuming the pokeweed plant without knowing what you are doing
    • There are very specific processing stages, and limitations on what part of the plant is able to be prepared, along with when it is suitable for harvesting.
  3. Consuming or using the roots of pokeweed
    • Pokeweed roots are not suitable for use and should never be consumed.

Pokeweed vs Elderberry Frequently Asked Questions

What Poisonous Berry looks like Elderberry?

Most commonly, pokeweed, or pokeberry can be mistaken for elderberry. This is the main focus we have here as we look at the pokeweed vs elderberry discussion.

There is potential for elderberry to be mistaken for hemlock, which is more likely to be a case of the flowers being confused with each other rather than the fruit.

Is it Poisonous to Touch Pokeweed?

Contact with the sap or juice of Phytolacca Americana, also known as pokeweed or pokeberry, can cause irritation to the skin and mucous membranes. In some cases, it can cause a rash or other allergic reaction.

However, the plant is not poisonous simply from touching it. It is generally only when the plant is ingested or its sap or juice is introduced to the eyes, nose, or mouth that it can cause serious symptoms. [7]

If you come into contact with Phytolacca Americana, it is a good idea to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to remove any sap or juice that may be present. If you develop any symptoms after touching the plant, such as a rash or difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention.

Can you Eat Pokeweed Berries?

No. It is not safe to consume the berries from the pokeweed plant.

Is there Another Name for Pokeweed?

Pokeweed is sometimes called by other names, including inkberry (although this is also the name of another plant that is completely different – which is known by the botanical name Ilex glabra), scoke, or pigeonberry.

Conclusion

Under no circumstances would I assume that it is safe for me to consume pokeberry or any other part of the pokeweed plant. As much as there are commercially available products made from Phytolacca americana, these have been done to specific standards with processes in place.

Even harvesting the plant to make your own poke sallet may not be advisable, unless you really know what you are doing. [8]

Clearly the pokeweed vs elderberry comparison shows they are quite different. There are certain risks in mixing these two up. If you do choose to forage, do so wisely.

References

  1. “Phytolacca americana” – Wikipedia, Last Checked 2 January 2023 [Wikipedia] [Archive]
  2. “Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)” – Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service Staff, 20 July 2017 [Queensland Health] [Archive]
  3. “Toxicity of Elder” – Botanical Online Team, 12 May 2021 [Botanical Online] [Archive]
  4. “Poisoning from Elderberry Juice – California” – CDC Staff, 6 April 1984 [CDC] [Archive]
  5. “Saponin toxicity as key player in plant defense against pathogens” – M. Zaynab, Y. Sharif, S. Abbas, M. Z. Afzal, M. Qasim, A. Khalofah, M. J. Ansari, K. A. Khan, L. Tao, S. Li, 15 April 2021 [PubMed] [Archive]
  6. “Pokeweed” – Drugs Staff, 1 December 2021 [Drugs] [Archive]
  7. “American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana L.)” – D. Taylor, Last Reviewed 20 June 2022 [US Forest Service] [Archive]
  8. “A forgotten food of the American South” – D. van Buren, 20 March 2019 [BBC] [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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