A weed is, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.” When it comes to weeds, I always have to ask, “Not valued by whom?” Native plants evolve to fill a particular niche in an ecosystem and play an important role in it. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is no exception.
Acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I find this plant to be both bold and beautiful and am enjoying the forest of it that is growing in the former vegetable garden next to my house. In the spring it emerges from the ground as just a few tender little shoots.
By mid-spring, it can grow up to 10 feet high, with delicate clusters of white or cream blossoms, often tinted pink or green on fleshy green branches. By early July, the flowers have turned to slightly flattened green berries, and the stems start turning purple. By the end of summer, the berries are dark purple, almost black.
Pollinators, including hummingbirds and insects, are attracted to the nectar in the flowers, and “an impressive list of critters” eat the berries, which contain long, black, shiny seeds, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Virginia wildlife that consume the berries or the seeds within include the American robin, northern mockingbird, mourning dove, gray catbird, eastern bluebird, northern cardinal, great-crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, yellow-bellied sapsucker, pileated woodpecker, brown thrasher, cedar waxwing, bear, deer, red and gray fox, gray squirrel, Virginia opossum, raccoon and white-footed mouse.
Even in winter, when pokeweed dies back and the flesh of the berries has disappeared, many animal species still consume leftover seeds. The plant is also a host for the spectacular giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia), which has a wingspan of up to 3.5 inches.
The number of a plant’s common names often indicates how common or important it has been in human history. In the case of pokeweed, the list of common names is long and includes common pokeweed, poke berry, poke, poke root, poke salad (or poke sallet), Virginia poke, pocan, pocan bush, scoke, caokum, coakum, cucum, cokan, red-ink plant, redwood, redwood, garget, chongras, jalap, inkberry, cancer root, American nightshade and pigeon berry.
The word “weed” comes from the Old English word for “herb,” and pokeweed has long been used in folk medicine to treat numerous health problems, according to the American Cancer Society; in fact, it’s still used in many herbal remedies today. While medical research has not shown whether pokeweed is indeed effective in treating many of these ailments, a protein in the plant, “pokeweed antiviral protein,” shows promise in being useful in treating cancer, herpes and human immunodeficiency virus. However, the research still has a long way to go, says ACS.
Pokeweed has also been a favorite staple of country cuisine since colonial times, when tender young shoots were boiled and eaten as “poke salad” or “poke sallet.” Bradford Angier, in “Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants,” says the shoots and leaves of young pokeweed plants (“up to some 7 inches in height”) are rich in vitamin C. “The shoots proved so popular to the first mariners and explorers in the New World,” he writes, “that they took the sprouts back to Europe, where they were equally regarded as delicious.”
Even with young plants, only the stems and leaves are considered safe to eat, and those need to be well boiled, with the water changed twice, according to most references. All parts of the mature pokeweed plant contain chemically active substances, such as phytolaccine, formic acid, tannin and resin acid, that are “at least mildly poisonous when eaten, although the root is most toxic,” says ACS, which has on its website a long list of scary possible effects of eating pokeweed when it’s not properly prepared.
Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski, in their book “Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America,” suggest handling the plant in the course of preparing young stems for eating can be dangerous enough to warrant leaving it alone altogether. They also warn against using folk medicinal preparations from the roots. The Maryland Native Plant Society adds another warning: while mature pokeweed is hard to confuse with other plants, in early spring it can be mistaken for the “extremely toxic” false hellebore or Indian poke (Veratrum viride).
Juice from the pokeweed berries was once used to make ink and dye and is still used by the food industry to make red food coloring, according to ACS. Tinctures of pokeweed have also been used by farmers to reduce swelling of cows’ udders.
Pokeweed does live up to the “weed” part of its name in that it has “vigorous growth.” That and its toxicity probably are why, despite its value to wildlife, pokeweed is not generally included in native-gardening guides. With its height and rapid growth, it can literally overshadow and crowd out other plants. And farmers, especially livestock growers, often see it as a problem to be eradicated in their pastures because it can kill animals that eat it, although ACS says this “rarely happens.”
This doesn’t mean animals are totally immune to effects of eating the plant. “Sometimes the birds get drunk on overly ripe berries and don’t seem to care where they leave their purple splotches,” says GDNR, referring to birds’ digestive output after eating the fruit.
In an interesting historical side note from ACS, apparently followers of President James Polk wore pokeweed twigs during their candidate’s election campaign, “mistakenly believing that the plant was named for him.” Perhaps his followers were eating overly ripe berries, too.