Elderberry Vs. Pokeberry: SPICEography Showdown

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Elderberry and pokeberry have both been used for much of human history. They are valuable because of their health benefits and other properties. The two are sometimes mistaken for each other, but — as we will see — they are very different. Below, we will examine elderberries and pokeberries and how each of them is used.

How does the elderberry differ from the pokeberry?

The two berries do have a similar color and some similarities in appearance, but they are far from identical. Elderberries are the smaller of the two and grow in loose clusters; pokeberries grow down the sides of their stems in bunches and each berry has a dent.

Despite their somewhat similar appearances, elderberries and pokeberries are not related. They come from different plants that have two separate origins. The elderberry comes from the elder plant, which is also the source of elderflowers; pokeberry is harvested from the pokeweed plant.

Flavor is the most important area of difference from a culinary standpoint. You will notice that in most recipes that involve elderberries or pokeberries, other flavorful ingredients are included as well. These other ingredients indicate that neither berry is pleasant to eat on its own. Elderberries are tart with a strong bitter edge while pokeberries are basically tasteless with a slightly bitter aftertaste. The tartness and bitterness of the elderberry mean that it is the more flavorful of the two when sweetened properly.

Both berries have reputations for being toxic, but the elderberry’s toxicity is limited to the unripe berry; ripe berries are safe to eat. Pokeberry is safe to eat as long as you can use the fruit without rupturing the seeds, which do contain toxins.

Can you use elderberry in place of pokeberry and vice versa?

Elderberries can make an effective substitute for pokeberries in most applications. The fact that it is the more flavorful of the two makes it an improvement over the pokeberry. While elderberry can work as a pokeberry substitute, you may notice differences in the area of color. Pokeberry was once known as inkberry because of the intensity of its magenta color, which was bright enough for its juice to be used to dye fabric and as writing ink. The color of elderberries is not as bright.

You can use pokeberries in place of elderberries as well, but note that they won’t provide anything like the elderberries flavor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that they are essentially tasteless means that you can add whatever spices and flavorful ingredients you want to them. For example, you can use lemon juice and zest to give them a tart citrus flavor that might work in jams and jellies.

Keep in mind that when replacing elderberries with pokeberries you will have to take steps to get the juice and pulp without cracking the seeds. You can do this by freezing the berries and then thawing them to break down the pulp part of the fruit.

When should you use elderberry and when should you use pokeberry?

Use elderberry if you want a berry with flavor and don’t want to go to the trouble of separating the pulp from the seeds. Use pokeberry in applications where the color is paramount or where you don’t need the flavor of the berry.