Poking Up Here and There

Growing in the wilder, unkempt edges of my yard are large bush-like plants with giant, red-stemmed stalks and bright green leaves. This is Pokeberry or Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Several have reached 8 feet (almost 2.5 meters) in height. Their greenish white flowers are now becoming reddish purple berries. Pokeberry is native to eastern North America with scattered populations in the West. It is usually found in fields, on roadsides, and along forest edges, not to mention backyards, and grows from 4 to 10 feet (about 1 to 3 meters) high.

Pokeberry is easily identified by its bright red stems and flower stalks, as well as deep purple berries. Photo by Chris Light, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Poke” is from puccoon, pocan, or poughkone, the Algonquin name for this native, perennial plant. The scientific name for the genus, Phytolacca, is from the Greek phytus, meaning “plant,” and lacca, meaning “crimson lake,” a reference to its deep reddish purple fruits. Both its stems and fruiting stalks are bright scarlet as well.

Pokeberries have been used to make ink and Inkberry is another of the plant’s common names. During the Civil War, when writing materials were in short supply, soldiers were known to write home using a Pokeberry dye and quills made from wild turkey feathers.

The stem, roots, leaves, and fruits of Pokeberry are poisonous to humans, dogs, and livestock. Among other toxic chemicals, Pokeberry contains phyolaccine, which causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms or worse. Eating large amounts of the plant can cause convulsions, respiratory failure, and even death. This plant should not be grown where young children might eat the berries.

Yet, there are folk recipes from Appalachia and the rural American South that use the new leaves from this toxic plant, after boiling in many changes of water. There are even poke salad, or “poke sallet,” festivals celebrating this tradition, although none now feature eating poke greens. One is the Poke Sallet Festival in Harlan, Kentucky. There is also a 1969 pop music hit, written and performed by Tony Joe White, called “Poke Salad Annie.” Eating Pokeberry leaves is not recommended though!

Each Pokeberry fruit has about 10 seeds. Several years ago, before I was making my own compost, I bought a bag of compost. Up sprouted Pokeberry seedlings! I wondered whether the compost hadn’t been heated (now required by law) or just that the seeds survived the heat treatment! Pokeberry seeds have an extremely hard coat and can last for 40 years in the soil’s seed bank. I am still seeing seedlings pop up from that commercial compost, but I think it is where I disturbed the soil.

As it matures, Pokeberry develops a large white taproot. Unwanted seedlings, which have a small taproot, can easily be pulled up. You might need to dig out the roots of a larger plant. Why would you let this plant, which most of us think of as a weed, grow in your yard? Pokeberry really is attractive and, unlike here in the United States, in Britain many gardeners are including it in their landscapes as an architectural statement.

A Giant Leopard Moth larva or caterpillar feeds on Pokeberry leaves. After resting as a pupa or cocoon, it will eclose or hatch into this beautifully patterned adult. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

In these days of habitat and species loss, as well as climate change, we not only need to think about how a plant looks in our yards, but also what service it provides to the ecosystem. Pokeberry is one of the larval food plants for the Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).  Although Pokeberry is toxic to mammals, it is not poisonous for birds and is in fact relished by them. It is an especially important food for fall migrants. Because of this plant, you might even get bird species you don’t normally see in your yard. Pokeberry is a superfood for the Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Red-belled Woodpecker, various thrushes, and many more.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are just one of the many bird species which feed on pokeberries. These birds have been know to pass food to one another so that all will get an equal share. Photo by Alan Rice, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, if it is safe for your family, let a few plants poke up here and there and keep some in your yard for birds. It is a plant you don’t have to go out and buy. You probably already have it in your soil’s seed bank!

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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