Many of the weeds we battle are quite beautiful, in their own right. Lovely flowers, stunning fruit, and interesting form all contribute to a natural landscape and, of course, to the reproduction of the plant. Pokeweed is one such perennial weed, but is a beautifully dangerous plant.
Phytolacca americana is native to North America, South America, East Asia, and New Zealand. Pokeweed is known by many names: pokebush, pokeberry, poke, pokeroot, polk salad, polk sallet, and inkberry. Argentina's symbol is the ombu (Phytolacca dioica). In the United States, the plant is found predominantly in the eastern half of the country, from Minnesota to Maine and south.
Pokeweed grows reaches heights of 10 feet and reseeds itself vigorously by the beautiful dark purple berries that grow in long clusters known as racemes. Where pokeweed appears individually in areas in which it is not common, the seed most likely traveled with birds. A thick, fleshy stem appears early in the season, emerging from a rosette of leaves. As the plant grows, the stem becomes pink or red, which is a good identification of the plant before berries appear. As the plant matures, the flowers appear on the racemes, then develop into fleshy berries.
Aside from the fact that Pokeweed does not belong in your garden, there is another, more serious consideration: all parts of the plant are poisonous, containing the alkaloids phytolaccine and phytolaccotoxin, and glycoprotein, but the root is the most potent. The beautiful berries are attractive to children and this plant should be eradicated in any location where youngsters might come in contact with it. While animals tend not to eat pokeweed, some evidence of poisoning has been documented in horses, swine, and cattle. Signs of poisoning in these species range from mild colic and diarrhea to respiratory failure, retching, inability to rise, and decrease in milk production. Birds do not seem affected by the toxin, possibly because the seeds have hard outer shells that remain intact through the digestive tract and are eliminated whole.
As a result of pokeweed's long history as a folk remedy, humans have also suffered from its toxic effects when eaten. Signs of mild poisoning in humans include severe vomiting about 2 hours after ingestion. In severe cases, convulsions, tachycardia (fast heart rate), dizziness, and coma have been documented. Paralysis of the respiratory organs causes death. Time is critical if pokeweed poisoning is suspected.
How To Get Rid of It
Individual plants can simply be pulled, being sure to get the entire root. Wear gloves when handling the plant, and destroy it by burning. They are easier to pull when they are under 2 feet tall. In large areas, plow the plants under and plant the area with soybeans or corn for a couple of years. In areas where this method is not practical, extension agents advise spraying with a 2,4-D low-volatile ester. After treating pastures or fields, do not allow animals to graze for at least 2 weeks.
Pokeweed in Folklore and Culture
- Native Americans used the bright crimson juice to stain feathers, arrow shafts, and garments, and to decorate their horses.
- Early settlers used the root in poultice form for rheumatism, skin rashes, and inflammations.
- Folk remedies include topical treatments for acne, and jelly that relieves arthritis pain. Taken internally, pokeweed is thought to cure tonsillitis and swollen glands, and stimulate weight loss.
- The United States Declaration of Independence was written in pokeberry juice, and many Civil War letters were penned similarly.
- Pokeweed is the favored food source of the Giant Leopard Moth larvae.
- Poke salad or Polk Sallet are dishes made from young pokeweed leaves that have been boiled three times, though there is no guarantee that all the toxins are gone. Such lore has generated annual festivals in some Appalachian states, and Tony Joe White's song, "Polk Salad Annie," was a hit in 1969.
However beautiful or interesting or unusual this plant may be, it does not belong in your garden or landscape.
 Iowa State University Extension, Pm-746, 1997