Clusters of grayish-blue fruits hang from the branches of a small tree. Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a beautiful plant with arching branches. Its shaggy bark is wrapped around with furrows in older plants. The leaves are a fresh green and paired; each pinnate leaf actually looks like several leaves, since it is composed of 3–9 little leaflets.
Elderberry has a rich history of being used in cuisine, crafts, and medicine–but it must be approached with caution since the green parts of the plant and the unripe berries are quite toxic. The roots are the most toxic of all. But ripe berries make a delicious syrup, jam or wine, and the plant has long been cherished by traditional cultures. Petals can be eaten raw, made into a tea, or used to flavor pancakes. Some have even dipped the entire flower head in batter and fried it! Elderberry syrup is said to be an effective treatment for the flu; you can buy bottles of it at most health food stores. Native Americans used the branches for baskets, flutes and arrow shafts, and the fruit was a main food source.
Before the fruit is ripe, you can tell blue elderberry from its cousin, red elderberry, by the shape of the flower head. Blue elderberry has a flat-topped cluster, whereas red elderberry flowers are arranged in a pyramidal or roundish shape.