Weeds: Pokeweed, Common

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), is a fairly common weed, though you might mistake it for a shrub in the late summer. This herbaceous perennial is also known as Inkberry. Other names include American pokeweed, poke sallet, or poke salad.  The “poke” part of the name could come from the Algonquian word pokan, meaning bloody. according to Saara Nafici of the Brookyln Botanic Garden.

When I was a child, I used the ink from the berries to write on wood, and I have heard rumors it was used during the Civil War for both ink and dye. If you want to learn how to make ink, try here. Nafici shares another rumor that it was used to write the Declaration of Independence – so clearly there has been quite the effort to make the plant seem somehow useful!

Despite the pretty berries which are enjoyed by birds and deer, the plant is quite toxic to humans, especially to small children who might not know the difference between the pokeweed’s purple berries and grapes. It’s being poisonous doesn’t seem to stop some people from trying to eat it though. Pokeweed recipes can be found in Southern cookbooks, and only stopped being sold as a canned food twenty years ago. One other fun fact about pokeweed: it was suggested as a weight loss drug at the turn of the century!

Some 30 species of birds (many of them songbirds) rely on pokeberries, so if you decide to get rid of your plants, consider planting some of the berries in a place where you won’t mind it growing. You’ll not only help a variety of beautiful birds, but you’ll also create a lovely spot to catch sight of mockingbirds, hooded warblers and cardinals.

What does it mean?

If you see a fair amount of pokeweed around, it means you are really lacking calcium and phosphorus, but that you have a lot of iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. It is a taproot plant, which means that your soil is probably fairly hard (taproot plants break up hard soil).

If you want to get rid of it, the easiest way is to dig it up. If you simply trim it back, the plant will come back strong and healthy. Additionally – if you don’t get it small, it becomes almost shrubby in height and stem thickness. Each berry is a seed, so if you wait until it begins to set fruit you will have a harder time stopping its return.  Says Pfeiffer, it has just one taproot and no horizontal roots, so you can stop it through tillage.

Want to learn more?

If you would like to learn more about weeds, why they grow, and what that means about your garden, consider the following texts:

Weeds and Why they Grow, by Jay L. McCaman

Weeds and What They Tell Us, by Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer

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