Elderberries start out as a cluster of white flowers around the beginning of summer, which eventually turn into the tiny dark purple juicy balls pictured above at the end of summer (late august through early september).
The leaf pattern is pretty easy to recognize (see pic below) and once you know it you will realize you see this bush along side the road, in the woods, and maybe even in your own yard.
The bark is somewhat smooth with little dots, nodules similar to a young black walnut tree or sumac (but without the nasty acrid smell of the black walnut.)
I picked a good bunch of clusters off my bush - all of which were dark and ripe. Do NOT eat these raw or unripe... they aren't that kinda berry! They have to be processed in some form, into some fabulous recipe to be edible....
something like :::
The tedious part is getting all the tiny little berries off the web of stems, and making sure all the wittle bitty woody stems are outta your bowl of berries that you are preparing to use - no matter which recipe you might choose. It isn't hard work, but it takes some time and care, to double check.
I had a pretty good amount of berries just from my one bush, and considered making the elderberry syrup but didn't have all the ingredients on hand (raw sugar & a hand food mill)...so I decided to just boil mine down for about 30 minutes with a little maple syrup.
(If you were using these to make dye, you could add vinegar or salt depending on what you wanted to use the dye on.)