Is it an herb, a weed, or a wildflower? A toxic killer, a medical miracle, or a delectable early spring green? Pokeweed is all of these things and more. This native herbaceous perennial with tropical relatives has a fascinating history, and you’ve probably seen its striking red stems and dark, glossy berries in pastures, disturbed areas, or the edges of your own yard. Also known as Virginia poke and pokeberry, it looks like a small tree or bushy shrub and most commonly grows 4-8 feet tall in full sun or part shade. The tender shoots start out slowly in spring and summer, but by August, the magenta stems are laden with tiny white flowers sporting centers that resemble miniature green pumpkins. These develop into rounded fruits with flattened tops and bottoms that change to purplish black, hanging in long bunches. The plant’s erect form often bends under the weight of the copious fruit. Pokeweed grows in a variety of well-drained soils with consistent moisture but will tolerate some drought. It spreads only by seeds, and it’s firmly anchored by a deep, substantial taproot (poke root is another common name).
While American gardeners have been reluctant to incorporate pokeweed into their landscapes, Europeans are more willing to do so. The naturalized plant’s magenta stems and attractive berries and foliage are becoming more common in European gardens. It should be noted that all parts of pokeweed, including the berries, contain saponins, which are toxic chemicals (see Medicinal, Edible section below). However, there are many reasons to plant a few pokeweeds, the least of which is wildlife value. Pokeweed berries are an important fall and winter food source for some mammals and many bird species. These animals are unaffected by the poisons in the berries, which allows them to devour the nutritious fruits and disperse the seeds. Seed distribution by birds may explain how isolated plants appear in areas otherwise free from pokeweed; the hard seed coat allows the seeds to remain viable for decades.
Despite its toxicity to humans, pokeweed has been consumed by Native Americans, early settlers, and Appalachians. Michael Twitty, a Southern food expert, says “poke sallet” (salad) was first eaten because its toxins killed off worms, which were common in our ancestors who went barefoot. He says that everyone he talks to who has eaten pokeweed declares that, “It will clean you out from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.” Pokeweed is one of the first fresh vegetables in spring. According to author Nicole Taylor, people who were poor or formerly enslaved were more likely to eat pokeweed because they had to forage and learn how to cook any available plants. But handling pokeweed takes skill and caution because the toxins can pass into the skin. Twitty recalls having aching hands after picking poke berries as a child.
The leaves have a distinct odor that some find to be unpleasant. That didn’t stop people from using them as perhaps the first campaign buttons. During the presidential election of 1844, supporters of James K. Polk pinned pokeweed leaves to their lapels to encourage others to vote for their candidate.
Native habitats include disturbed sites, pastures, forest openings, edges of habitats, and fencerows. Consider planting pokeweed along edges of woods, in sunny areas against buildings or in deep containers.
Grows 4-8 ’ tall and rarely up to 20’ tall and 3-5’ wide. Can be pruned to control height prior to flowering (see flowering photo).
Does best in full sun to part shade.
Prefers deep, gravelly soils with moderate moisture but grows readily in well-drained clay, loam, and sand.
Small, greenish-white flowers bloom in 3- to 6-inch cylindrical clusters (racemes) opposite the upper leaves from early summer to early fall. They are composed of 5 greenish-white or pink petal-like sepals and several green carpels folded together in the center. Seeds are contained in a fleshy, ten-celled berry on a long, pink pedicel. Berries change color from green to white to blackish purple as they ripen.
Lance-shaped, coarse-textured leaves are medium green, have smooth margins and pointed tips, and are 3-16” long, decreasing in size towards the top of the plant.
One or several branches grow from the crown of a thick, white taproot that grows deep and spreads horizontally to be able to support the heavy stem and berries. The reddish stems have chambered piths. Branches are stout, smooth, and green to purplish.
Pokeweed is a host plant for the giant leopard moth. Hummingbirds and insects consume the nectar, and the pollen is collected by bees. The berries are a prized food source for songbirds and other bird species, including gray catbird, summer tanager, northern mockingbird, cardinals, bluebirds, crows, thrashers, mourning doves, and cedar waxwings. Raccoons, deer, opossums, red and gray foxes, and white-footed mice can also tolerate the toxins in the berries.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Caution: According to Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, “children are most frequently poisoned by eating raw berries. Infants are especially sensitive and have died from eating only a few raw berries. Adults have been poisoned, sometimes fatally, by eating improperly prepared leaves and shoots, especially if part of the root is harvested with the shoot, and by mistaking the root for an edible tuber. Since the juice of pokeweed can be absorbed through the skin, contact of plant parts with bare skin should be avoided.”
Native Americans and early settlers used the root in poultices and drugs for skin diseases and rheumatism. Pokeweed is used in alternative medicine for various conditions. The plant is currently being tested for use in treating cancer.
The traditional poke salad was prepared by boiling then rinsing the young shoots and leaves several times in fresh water.
Early settlers made a red dye from the roots and a pink dye from the berries. The berries were also once used to make ink, supplying the common name of inkberry. Dolly Parton has said she used poke berries to stain her lips.
Researchers at Wake Forest University have discovered that a pokeweed dye doubles the efficiency of fibers used in solar cells to absorb solar energy.
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