If a nice-looking plant could attract scads of birds, make a great mess of greens, treat cancer, AIDS, herpes, bad breath and more, and revolutionize the solar energy industry on the side, wouldn’t you want it in your backyard?
All of these claims and more have been made for the American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), an imposing perennial common in disturbed, fallow and edge areas, routinely growing taller than 6-8 feet, with large, oblong leaves and reddish stems at maturity. It’s also known as poke root, poke salad (or poke sallet), poke berry, poke, inkberry, cancer root, American nightshade, pigeon berry and other names. The starring feature of Pokeweed is the flower cluster, which can host flowers, immature green berries and mature, shiny red berries all on the same clump, and there are many clumps per plant, flowering from May on into the fall. It dies back to its very large taproot each winter and re-emerges each spring. It is very insistent about that.
With all this going for it, what’s not to like? Well, for one thing, it’s poisonous. For another, it’s persistent and somewhat aggressive and difficult to eradicate. Pokeweed has its passionate defenders, implacable enemies, and some in between, who might wish it wasn’t there, but have no qualms about using it for its good qualities. We have several healthy specimens in our yard, mostly around the edges in the fence or up against the house, and we appreciate it because birds find it irresistible. We never planted it. It showed up on its own, probably from the hard little seeds passing through a bird and being deposited with a handy little packet of fertilizer. It seems to generate a couple more plants each year, and we will soon have to control its spread. We pull it or chop it in places where we don’t want it, but this might be only semi-effective, since it will try to come back from the root each spring. There are chemical treatments, if you’re really desperate, including glyphosate. At least one online gardeners’ forum has had a lively debate on the merits of this plant in gardens and its control.
Pokeweed is one of the signature edible native plants of America, with a strong role in Native-American, African-American and Southern cultures and cuisines. The key is caution. Young leaves and stems in the spring, before any red has crept into them, are harvested by legions of foragers and boiled in at least two changes of water, discarding the water afterwards. Some, in Southern style, saute the greens with bacon drippings and crumbles, alone or mixed with other wild greens. Some also cook the young stems like asparagus, to which their flavor is compared, or cut them into rounds, like okra, coating them with cornmeal and frying them. Some just saute them in butter, with salt and pepper. They are sometimes used in making pickles. Just remember to blanch them in water first! Twice!
Never eat the roots! Never. Too bad, too, because they’re big and juicy.
The toxins in Pokeweed, depending on what source you’re working from, range from deadly to mild. They are usually concentrated in the roots, berries and seeds and include an alkaloid (phytolaccine), a resin (phytolaccatoxin), and a saponin (phytolaccigenin). Their effects can range from embarrassing to very nasty, including diarrhea, vomiting, internal bleeding, rapid heartbeat, convulsions, and much more, up to and including death. Blanching in changes of water eliminates most of the toxins from young leaves and stems, but caution is called for. Also, since the berries are a very tempting looking bright red, you might want to think twice about having this plant in places frequented by young children, because I remember what I was like as a kid.
Aside from its decorative and culinary qualities , Pokeweed is useful for establishing quail habitat, since quail love the berries (birds are not affected by the toxins), and it also forms a nice shady refuge for them. It is good for attracting pollinating insects to gardens.
It has been used for inks and dyes (here’s how you can make your own!), making a beautiful red color, and is being studied for potential treatments for cancer and various viral diseases, among other ailments. Some folks still swear by eating a small number of berries to prevent arthritis, but you didn’t hear that from me. Keep in mind that online sources of medical information often urge strong caution in using Pokeweed medicinally, or simply say “Don’t do it.”
It has even inspired a song or two along the way. Who could forget Poke Salad Annie?
One of its newest uses is in the field of solar energy generation. It seems a red dye made from the mature berries can be used to coat fiber-based solar cells, increasing their efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity. Who knew?
We have it in our yard. We’re keeping it. Like all things, it has pluses and minuses, but, on average, we think it’s worthwhile having around. Our birds agree, and if I ever get the money to put up solar cells on the roof, I’ll be squeezing a bunch of berries and painting the juice on them. Or however they do that…..