Pokeweed, American (Phytolacca americana): The Jekyll and Hyde Plant

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.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

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.

Flowers, immature and mature berries on one cluster

Flowers, immature and mature berries on one cluster

Pokeweed berries

Tempting looking pokeberries. Look, but don’t eat! Leave them for the birds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Pollinator fly on Pokeweed flower

Syrphid fly on Pokeweed flower

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…..

38 Responses to Pokeweed, American (Phytolacca americana): The Jekyll and Hyde Plant

  1. Tom says:

    I loved your narrative about poke weed. It is a much more enjoyable read than most botanical guides.

  2. Steve says:

    Does anyone use extracts from pokeweed as a herbicide to keep other fence-line-growers under control?

    I just noticed that the areas around pokes that grow up along fences are clear of all other weeds.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Hi Steve. I have never heard of this and neither has Nadia. In our yard we have lots of plants growing around pokeweed, including tomatoes that are producing fruits. I suspect that your pokeweeds might just be outcompeting the other vegetation.

  3. Diane says:

    I’m using boiled poke weed root juice right now on a brown recluse bite. The guy doctors send you to-a preacher, part Cherokee, promises me it will heal it. Vanderbilt gave me steroids and said I’d probably get an infection and plastic surgery… Then charged me a lot of money. Luckily, it’s spring, and I can try poke weed root free.

  4. Chris O'Neill says:

    I wonder what American Pokeweed was doing in the cobbled streets of Dragor? It’s a small harbour town on the Danish coast near to Copenhagen. It was covered in bunches of glossy black berries in August, when I was there on holiday.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Interesting. A quick Google search turned up Pokeweed self-seeding in Britain. It is listed as naturalized there, species Phytolacca acinosa or Indian Pokeweed. If it’s turned up in England, it’s not too big a stretch to suppose that birds may have spread its seeds to Denmark and elsewhere in northern Europe.

      Thanks for the info and for reading.

      P.S. A little more digging found a reference that this species is listed in Bornholm, Denmark!

  5. kaleb larsen says:

    Phytolacca americana
    not on the List of invasive species in Europe
    Pokeweed is a garden plant in Denmark

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Phytolacca acinosa was the species I found for parts of the UK and Europe. Is American Pokeweed grown in Danish gardens or this other species? Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Kat says:

    Sidenote: Can anyone verify that Diane is still alive and kicking? This past summer, my fiance and I lived at a cottage in the Catskills, and our landlords told us the pokeberries were “elderberries.” Luckily, we had the good sense to research the berries first, since my fiance (who’s from England) said they didn’t look anything like the elderberries in England… we were horrified when we found out what it really was, since we’d been harvesting the berries… PLEASE always use caution with this plant!

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Not sure, Kat, since she never came back with an update. Maybe I’ll email her and ask. Recluse bites are generally non-fatal, but can be terribly painful and disfiguring. I am very curious about whether the pokeweed treatment actually helped.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Randy Tindall says:

        Update: Diane is alive and kicking! Here is her reply about the pokeweed remedy for brown recluse bites. Note that “Nadia’s Backyard” only passes on information—we don’t recommend, endorse, advocate, etc., etc., etc., ANY treatment without checking with your doctor and doing lots of research.

        “Hi! The pokeweed root remedy came from the native Americans. It’s being studied for skin cancer and other poisons.
        One year later exactly from my brown recluse bite, there’s a scar, but doctors cannot believe how it healed. I have specialists and issues; they know me as a hot mess! The little kids I teach always come to see the preserved spider and my arm during science.
        Pokeweed root helped! I never got a big hole or had nasty dr drilling. It got somewhat yucky, but not like so many people’s bites.
        How I did it:
        I did use bentonite clay after I figured out it was a recluse. Didn’t have charcoal.
        I boiled the pokeweed roots after cleaning, soaked gauze in the “juice”, wrapped the swollen parts of my arm in that and wrapped it after I gently scuffed the bite with a soaked cloth. My arm was in a sling prior, because the venom made it look like I had arm measles when moving it. Anyway, the soaked gauze helped with pain. I used this gauze at night for about two weeks, refrigerating the left-overs and making more as needed. During the day, I tried to let it air and had a friend make a special root powder antibiotic type salve. (I’d have to ask for the recipe but remember camphor and goldenseal.) If I had to do it again, I would immediately get charcoal caps emptied into it, take benedryl, then start the process and not even bother with Vanderbilt ER, who was of NO help with their 2 cortisone tablets. For people who don’t know American Pokeweed (we have loads in TN!), you can now get root powder at mountain rose herbs.
        By the way, now is the time of year spiders are out, so be aware!”

        • Laura Harrison says:

          I just saw this and so very happy Diane responded. Interesting.
          I came by this site b/c we just bought a small place in the country in TN. The previous owner was bitten by a recluse twice (said our new neighbor)
          But I have TONS of this pokeweed growing on the property and I found your site when I was trying to find out more about it.
          Thanks

  7. Zoe says:

    Are other animals, such as cats, dogs immune to the toxicity of the berries, roots, et al?

    Thanks,

    Zoe

    • Randy Tindall says:

      This is what I found: “Cattle and sheep are the most susceptible species but poisoning occasionally occurs in horses, goats, and pigs. Animals may feed on poke plants, especially in the spring, when the plants are succulent. Where grass is short, the animals may browse so close as to get the top parts of the poke roots. Unless green herbage is very scarce later in the summer, animals will avoid the tops and berries.” Source: http://www.library.illinois.edu/vex/toxic/poke/poke.htm. Here’s another: “Poisonous to: Cats, Dogs, Horses, Cows

      Common signs to watch for:

      Drooling
      Vomiting
      Inappetance/refusal of food
      Diarrhea
      Possible tremors
      Hypotension

      All parts of this perennial contain saponins and oxalates which cause severe gastrointestinal irritation. Excessive salivation, vomiting, inappetance/refusal of food, diarrhea, possible tremors, and a drop in blood pressure may occur. The berries are generally not known for being very poisonous, and often may pass through the gastrointestinal tract intact (without being broken down).” Source: http://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/pokeweed/

      So the answer is no, they are not immune. I can’t imagine a dog or cat eating pokeweed, but you never know! Thanks for reading!

  8. Jessica says:

    Do they attract insects like Mosquitos? I didn’t see anything about insects in here.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Hi Jessica. I’m not aware that pokeweed or any other native plant attracts mosquitoes, but they do attract good pollinators like bees and pollinating flies. To control mosquitoes keep open water under control, like water in bird baths or plant dishes. Look for “wrigglers” every couple of days—they are probably mosquito larvae. Dump out the water and replace it with fresh water. But you probably knew this already.

  9. William chares says:

    I just googled this poke salad which I have ate all of my life I am 52 my best recipe is to boil over t just a couple of times then put it a cast iron skillet with some bacon grease and plenty of eggs and left over rice and season to your liking what a treat I still enjoy this meal to day but like greens I’d does take quite a bit its name poke comes from the name of poke cause you used poke which is a sack you know a poke sack I remember so well my mother would tell me to go get a poke sack lol I was raised like the show the Walton’s remember the show from the 1970 as most of you who have read this article on this plant we lived on and ate off the land I didn’t know we we ever poor as I nev r wend with out my grandma canned and pickled every thing and buchtered all our meat I eat better than most of others of those times one day I wish to write a book of those days gone by which when I reminisce it put a great big smile on my face ear to ear cutting hay laying in the hay loft and drinking freash milk which we owned a dairy farm wel I guess this enough lol for nowor I could go on for hours kids these days think its was such a hard life not to me I enjoyed every day well letter I hope you all enjoyed reminiscing with me and Randy glad to read your article but m reason how I came across your article was I am do some research on ways of stacking small plaints that don’t require a wide area nor a lot of head room in which to grown which would have require as many acreage I have my devised designed which would allow me to reclaim the would and reuse the would with out any fertilizer by knowing what plaints need I know that which plants and weed and other organic materials would make the channel value that the plants would need I plan on making prototype which would allow me me to grow beets for example purposes five acres of beets on just half of a arces with out bringing in soil all my soil I will make my on soil even having excess soil I know this has nothing to do with your article but I am just exside in being able to grow more and using less acres and no fertilizer or any chemicals and way less the labor and back bending which will decrease labor and the cost of preparing the field well talked to much I would really like to share the ideal with others who may be interested please fill free to email wdcharles63@gmail.com thanks for your time

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Thanks for the information, William! My mistake was not boiling the poke a couple times before eating it, and it gave me a little stomach ache. I knew better, but I got lazy. We are trying to grow food in our little backyard now, but poke is already there. I need to use it more and better. We also have lamb’s quarters, stinging nettle and cup plant, which all give good greens (make sure you boil the nettle first!). \

      Please let us know of your other native food plants. We would like to hear from you.

      • Kathy says:

        No offense to anybody, but I never boil through two waters, I just fry it in bacon grease with a little water…I make small servings, freeze in snack bags. I had a friend with colon cancer…while sitting at dr. Office waiting on chemo…an old man approached with a recipe, it was poke root tea. He told her two tablespoons a week had kept him going for twenty years. There has to be something to it, so I eat small amounts…not boiled through two waters. Dearly love it with fried potatoes and corn bread…

  10. Shannon says:

    I eat poke salad throughout the year, even with the stems purple. I was raised like that and continue to do it. I only eat the smaller leaves and always cut out the stem that runs down the center of it, though. And, I boil and drain at least twice. Never got sick. As a kid though I loved “accidentally” coloring my clothes with the berries when I played outside. 🙂

  11. Cindy says:

    Phytolacca:
    This is listed as one ingredient on product I have used during a weight loss effort. Does anyone have knowledge of this used for weightloss. If so, would it be purchased in 6x, or 12x dosages? Thanks for reply

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Cindy, I have heard that this plant is sometimes used to stimulate weight loss, but remember that all parts of this plant are toxic. I cannot recommend it for any medicinal purpose. We keep it for the birds to eat and they love it, seemingly being immune to the poisons in the plant. People who eat the leaves as a vegetable stress boiling the them in two to three changes of water to help get rid of the toxins. Thanks for reading!

  12. Teresa says:

    My dad’s grandmother was native american and he said if he was able to visit her before school started she would have him eat this plant. Every time he did he did not get sick that school year (flu, colds, etc). His mother would never cook it for the kids due to the side effects, but she used it to kill rodents. With that being said, I have always been interested and fearful of trying it. I need to know how to cook it right the first time. This is not a plant I want to cook using the trial and error method.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Great story, Teresa! The safest thing to do with pokeweed is to boil the young leaves in two or three changes of water. This should remove the toxic portion of the leaves. I don’t know how this affects the nutritional value, but I suspect it can’t be good for retaining good vitamins and minerals, but it’s better than getting sick. I have noticed mild stomach upset on two or three occasions when I have eaten pokeweed boiled only once. Never, ever eat the roots! There should be lots of cooking instructions online for this plant, because it has been a staple in some parts of the country historically. Good luck and thanks for reading!

  13. Vicki lynn Joplin says:

    I grew up eating poke and wild mushrooms. My Mom , nor have I ever boiled them twice before eating. Put them in a pan boil eat, or put bacon grease in skillet with diced onions, add fresh picked washed poke. When it has sufficiently wilted down eat. I am now 56 and still alive. I knew a lady who ate one poke berry a day for arthritis and I have eaten one berry, it did not taste good so I never ate another one.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Vicki. I believe you, but I can tell you that I have had mild stomach systems more than once after eating poke leaves cooked the way you describe. I suspect that individuals react differently. You’re lucky!

  14. Nancy says:

    I’m happy so many people have benefited from pokeweed.after mistaking it for giant warthog, I tried to cut it down and possible something was released into the air.I ended up twice in the er- never ate it or touched it without gloves.it only affected my head.swelled one eye completely shut and I was in trouble breathing.Iit laser about three weeks even after two courses of iv steroids.I am highly allegic (er time) to poison ivy, so maybe I’m more susceptible, but I looked like a monster and when my breathing became labored,it was time to return to er.they dismissed it as poison ivy though there was not a bit of itching and it was confined to my face and lungs (as far as I know).There is always an exception to most things,just putting this out there.

    • Randy Tindall says:

      Wow! Sorry that happened to you! I’ve never heard of pokeweed having this kind of effect on anybody before. It’s possible that it actually was poison ivy or something else that got you, but it’s good to know that some people might be to be extra cautious. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Heather says:

      May have been stinging nettle that made you react.

  15. Miguel says:

    Great info about Phytolacca americana. I’m in northern Portugal and my backyard has lots of it. We call it tintureira for its dye-related atributes. I was considering giving the berrys to chickens. I supose that if quail can eat them without problems, with chickens won’t be diferent, right?

    • Randy Tindall says:

      I am not aware that there is any problem with chickens eating these berries, although they are not recommended for human consumption. Many wild birds eat and love them. Let us know how it works, and thank you for reading!

  16. Rona P. says:

    Thanks to all for the insightful posts on Pokeweed. We had two plants pop up this year on opposite sides of the garden. One got yanked out early in the season, as it was growing in a path. The other is at least 6′ tall and full of flowers and berries. I’m tempted to try a berry, or investigate the tea, as I had colon cancer 5 years ago (runs in our family). I will definitely add this beauty to my Garden Picture collection.
    Thanks again!!

  17. Sue says:

    Thanks for all this info. I had no idea what I have in my yard. It’s been there for four years and is spreading. I’m allergic to many things. I think I will leave it alone. Your site was very informative.

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