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Questions From The Plant Clinic: Elderberry vs. Water Hemlock

We often see questions on whether or not a plant is edible in our plant clinic, and mistakes can be deadly when making an incorrect plant I.D. This week in the plant clinic, Master Gardener and Master Naturalist Don Philpott (dp@mediawiseus.com) helped to determine the difference between Water Hemlock and Elderberry. Read Don’s other articles [here].

Foraging is fun but it pays to be cautious

There’s a corny old saying in the world of foraging which is “every plant is edible once!”

Responsible foraging, however, involves making sure that what you put in your mouth is actually edible.

An ongoing study at Wekiwa Springs State Park has identified more than 1,700 Central Florida native plants that are edible or have medicinal benefits. The problem, of course, is being able to identify which plants are edible and which are not and that is where a basic knowledge of botany is helpful.

A great example is elderberry and water hemlock – the first has many edible uses and makes excellent wine while every part of water hemlock can kill you. Both will start to blossom in the next few weeks.

Never ever assume that just because one plant looks like an edible that it is also edible. From a distance elderberry and water hemlock look very similar but it is being able to recognize the differences that is important.

The elderberry is a deciduous shrubby bush and a member of the honeysuckle family. It is a woody plant with brown bark and opposite compound leaves and dense clusters of black berries. If you snap open the stem there is pith inside. The white flowers grow in umbrella like clusters and each flower has five, flattened white petals.

Water hemlock is herbaceous with a hollow main stem. The stem is green with purple streaks or entirely purple and it has alternating compound leaves. The white clusters of blossom produces seeds not fruit. All parts of the plant are toxic with the roots being the most deadly.

Edible elderberry

The blossoms, berries, and young leaves of the elderberry are edible. Berries can be eaten in small quantities when ripe, infused for a refreshing tea or used to make wine. The berries have antibacterial properties. Leaves and young shoots are best cooked or dried and then used as a flavoring. The flowers can be added to salads. The blossoms can also be used to produce a low alcohol naturally fermented sparkling wine.

Elder flowers and berries have been used for centuries to treat wounds. The berries contain antioxidant flavonoids and berries infused in hot water have been used to treat colds, flus and other respiratory ailments.


To see some great identifying images of Elderberry, check out the UF/IFAS Extension Lee County’s fact sheet on them [here]. For more information on growing Elderberry in your home landscape, check out the IFAS Document on it [here].  Always have a professional identify wild plants before consumption. Many wild plants have preparation requirements to remove toxins before they can be eaten.

Contact the Plant Clinic

The Seminole County Master Gardener Plant Clinic is open Monday – Friday from 9am-Noon and 1pm-4pm. For more information on how to contact a Master Gardener about your gardening questions, visit our website at this [LINK].