Pokeweed In Stages

August is prime time for observing pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a tall perennial that’s easy to find in waste places and along roadsides.  Though its name is “weed,” I love its colors.

In winter pokeweed dies back to the taproot but by August it’s 6-10 feet tall with spreading branches.  The succulent stems are stout and reddish with deep green alternate leaves up to 16″ long.  This plant is big.

Pokeweed’s flowers bloom on racemes that curl up while flowering and droop down when heavy with fruit.  This month you can see the flowers and fruits in all stages of development, often on the same raceme.

Here the flowers show five white petal-like sepals and nascent green berries in their centers.  Notice how the stem is pink.  Pink, white, green.

 

After the flowers are pollinated the green berries grow larger. On this stem the berries are all the same age, but that’s pretty rare.

More often the berries range from unripe green to ripe blue-black on the same stem.  This raceme shows nearly every stage in the berry life cycle.

 

Ripe pokeberries are a favorite food for catbirds and cardinals, robins and mockingbirds, thrashers and waxwings. When the berries are gone the empty stem puts on a final show in gorgeous magenta.

Like many plants some parts of pokeweed are toxic, others are not.  This makes for confusing instructions about its edibility. The berries and juice can be consumed but the seeds are poisonous.  The young shoots can be eaten in the spring but don’t eat the mature plant.  There’s even a song about eating pokeweed called “Poke Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White (see it here on YouTube).

On the plus side, the deep purple berry juice makes a beautiful red dye.

Pokeweed’s colors are a delight at every stage.

(photos by Kate St. John)

15 thoughts on “Pokeweed In Stages

  1. We just moved and found these in our back yard ( wasteland / forest). I thought,I should e-mail Kate st.John and find out if these are good for birds? And BAM , here is your blog. Perfect timing, we’ll leave them be until the birds have eaten their fill. thanks Kate.

  2. These came up in my backyard, and now in the front, and I have been going crazy trying to figure out what they are. I find them very pretty so I guess I will let them be and hope the birds enjoy. Thanks so much for posting this.

  3. When I was a kid we cooked and ate some young shoots, just for fun. They were pretty good. My Mom, who grew up in Virginia in the mountains said it was a welcome spring tonic and was well-loved because when it came up they were so sick of eating pinto beans every day all winter.

  4. Dear Kate – for a self-professed ” bad” photographer, you did a wonderful job on the recent pokeweed series in your blog (Aug 2012). I was wondering if I could have permission to use the photo with the raceme with green/red/purple berries on it for a September newsletter issue for Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands? I like to highlight something natural in every newsletter and am currently smitten with this plant.

    A very well established specimen grows outside my kitchen window every year, towering over a bed of 4 o’clocks that exactly match its magenta stems in color. A local mockingbird visited the plant several times a day this weekend – hanging upside down in increasingly challenging positions in his attempts to eat the most succulent of the berries. Made it a delight to do the dishes!

    Karen

  5. Website was very good at identifying a poisonous plant growing near the stairs on my deck. With 5 grandchildren I was very concerned. I removed the plant and poured a herbicide on the roots to prevent regrowth.

    1. Edmond DuPont, I always wonder about the merits of killing something that’s partially poisonous with something that’s certainly poisonous. Pokeweed can be eaten when the shoots are young, a tradition in the South. There’s a song about it called Poke Salad Annie.

  6. Just came across this, as I too am getting to know of pokeweed — thanks for sharing the racemes in all stages, plus sizes-habit-etc.

    …. As for edibility, early spring shoots and foliage are edible, as are ripe (shiny black) berries – BUT ONLY COOKED! — Here is a good article I found about the edibility of shoots (with some great recipes): https://www.gardenista.com/posts/weeds-you-can-eat-pokeweed/ ….. In the article a well respected wild foods author said 2 things that struck me – first, this is one of the most commonly eaten wild food vegetables in North America; plus he compares this plant with other edible plants that we simply have to teach our young people about, like rhubarb or asparagus. We know which parts of those plants to eat (rhubarb stems, asparagus shoots) & which are dangerous (rhubarb foliage, none of the mature ferny asparagus inclu the poisonous berries), we know this because someone taught it to us.

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