Provocative Pokeweed

The charming note posted below was in my inbox today. I thought Fred would enjoy, as would our GMG readers find interesting.

Allen writes:

Dear Madame Butterfly,

(You may recognize my name as an infrequent commenter on

GMG. More importantly, I am an FOF, Friend of Fred Bodin, although he NEVER invited me to his gallery soires !!!!!)

I always read your GMG posts and enjoy and learn from them.

I have a plant that comes up in my back yard and grows to a height of 5 or 6 feet. This week it fell down. Do you know what it is? Can I cut it up safely and dispose of it? Should I throw it over the fence in the back and let wildlife eat the berries?

Any help, thanks,

Allen

Phytolacca_americana_Sugarcreek_Ohio

Hi Allen,

Allen, as an FOF and FOB, of course you are invited to ALL GMG soirées. I hope you’ll come to the mug-up this Saturday morning at E.J.’s new summer gallery on Rocky Neck. I am planning to go, but will not get there until closer to 11:00. I look forward to meeting you!

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is what you have growing in your backyard. Pokeweed possesses nearly as many common names as the birds that find nourishment from its fruit, including pokeberry, Virginia poke, inkberry, ink weed, bear’s grape, American spinach, and American nightshade. The American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Mourning Dove, Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, Great-crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, European Starling, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, and Pileated Woodpeckers are some of the birds that dine on the fruits of pokeberry. Many mammals such as Red Fox, Virginia Opossum, Raccoon, White-footed Mouse, and Black Bear eat the berries, too.

Phytolacca_americana_Clinton_MI_2

Pokeweed can grow to ten feet, with an equally as long taproot as is it is tall in height. It typically grows in disturbed areas, pastures, roadsides, fencerows, open woods, and woodland borders. All parts of the plant are toxic to people and livestock, and especially to children. The root is the most toxic and the berries the least. It is not recommended to add to you compost. If you have children visiting your garden, I would suggest that you talk to them about the plant’s toxicity, and only throw it over you fence if beyond your fence is part of your property. To control a plant, cut below the root crown. An older plant may have a ten foot taproot, which would be very difficult to dig up.

 

 

Images courtesy wiki commons.

8 comments

  • Allen and Kim …. thanks for the question and the answer. I wasn’t aware that it was a poisonous plant. I think it’s beautiful … the gorgeous magenta on the stem, the wonderful contrast of the deep purple (maybe black ?) berries and then of course the green leaves … and it’s height. You certainly don’t have to hunt through other vegetation to see it!

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  • I always keep one or two poke weeds in my gardens. One is quite majestically the center feature in my purple plum lavender garden this season! If it weren’t wild here, I am sure that nurseries would feature it. By the way, common garden plants such as Lily of the Valley and Foxglove are also poisonous.

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  • Hi B,

    I’ve written about the toxicity of lily-of-the-vally previously and you can find more information re in my book Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities.

    Interestingly, pokeweed is popular in European gardens.

    I mention that pokeweed is poisonous because Allen was thinking about throwing it over his fence, which if there were livestock on the other side of the fence, would not be a good idea. With the rise in sustainable farming practices such as no soil tillage (a good thing of course), pokeweed poisoning to livestock is on the rise. And there’s a great deal of misinformation out on the internet about eating pokeweed, which if someone wants to take the chance, the leaves have to be cooked in the most precise manner. Additionally, I don’t see birds eating lily-of-the-valley seed heads, but do see myriad species eating pokeweed, and I don’t want people to think that it is okay for human consumption, which it definitely is not.

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  • Kim, thank you for the attention to my ‘umble question. I viewed some of the web info about eating parts of the plant at different times and find it conflicting. I’ll stick to packaged salad if I have to. Since my pokeweed fell over, I am concerned about disposing of it. Can I safely handle it? Can I cut it up, bag it, and give it to the DPW? If I throw it over the fence will wildlife benefit? To the last question may I say that there appears to be no cattle, sheep, or goats between here and the marsh. Rabbits yes but I don’t think that many birds come down into the thicket and if there were a coyote, then Rover who smells anything of danger within a quarter of a mile would growl and alert me. So what is the safest way to get rid of it?

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  • I think you can eat the leaves: Elvis looking good singing “Poke Salad Annie”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4csFnpZXek

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  • Kim & Allen excellent job here – Disclaimer: parts of it – As this herb is toxic, it requires a professional training for use.
    This is talked of at great lenghts in native cures and uses eastern tribes…I remember this from one of the items talked about in native cures and tradtions…

    Indian “pokan – Poke – Formally known as Phytolacca Americana, this perennial herb is a native plant of the eastern United States. It has several other common names including American Nightshade, Poke Weed, Inkberry, Pigeon Berry, Pocan Bush, Redweed, and others.
    This native North American plant was used by Native Americans in the eastern United States for the treatment of a variety of illnesses including dysentery, cancer and rheumatism, the powdered root was an emetic and cathartic. A salve for sores was made by combining roasted poke root, bittersweet, yellow parilla and elderberry bark to a base of boiled lard and beeswax.

    The Indians also found pokeweed delicious, and some of the first post- Columbus adventurers on these shores were in such agreement that they took the startings back to England and southern Europe, where the vegetable became popular. Indians of the eastern states thus used a poultice of powdered pokeroot to treat tumors and skin eruptions, and the colonists followed their example. It was believed that the plant’s high toxic qualities were responsible for its medicinal effects.

    I remember on the Johnny Carson he used to always tease Euell Gibbons but many of the cures of today and healthy foods are natural just have to know what is and what is not…

    Thanks Kim for addressing this: :-) Dave & Kim:-)

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