Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed

Phytolacca americana, known around here as Pokeweed is a large weed/wildflower. It easily grows 6 feet tall in our fields. Other than its size, it is not especially noticeable in spring or early summer, but once the tiny white flowers are fertilized and change into purple berries, it's hard to miss.

The first green shoots of the plant in the spring have been eaten as a spring greens (cooked only and boiled in several changes of water) and are said to be as good, or better, than asparagus. I've not tried it, but know people who love it. It is a source of vitamins A and C and some of the B vitamins, and calcium, phosphorus and iron. After spring, it is not safe to eat the leaves and the roots are poisonous at all times. The roots have been used to make a remedy for treating rheumatism, though I've not been able to find information on just how they are processed for that purpose. I do know that some people in this area will eat a couple of the berries every day and swear that it helps their arthritis. I've also heard of the berries being made into a tea. I have read that cooked berries are safer than raw, and that the seeds are the poisonous part, so berries without seeds are safe. I think I'm going to just avoid all of it to be safe. I find the herbal uses of plants to be more of a historical interest than something that I'm comfortable trying for myself of my family. In an herbal published almost 200 years ago, it was recommended that the berries be infused in brandy and that "the leaves are used in ointment for sore eyes and in the form of a poultice for reducing swellings from the bites of poisonous insects." It is also true that in the 19th century there were numerous cases of Pokeweed poisoning, though the reports I read didn't specify from which parts of the plant the poisonings occurred.

Pokeweed is an American native and is found in most of the country except for the Mountain States, Alaska and Hawaii. It is often found in old fields and waste places. Here it grows with Ironweed, Goldenrod and Thistles making fields of gold and purple in the fall.

A number of wildflowers have a place in my gardens and coexist happily here. Pokeweed isn't one of those. It is too big, too weedy, and seeds much too freely to be a welcome part of an even remotely civilized garden. Once it gets started pulling it out isn't an option because it has a large taproot. Digging is the only way to remove it from the garden. There is, however, a variegated form that is welcome, or at least tolerated, in the garden. It is also too big, and also tends to seed around a bit thanks to the birds (Cardinals and Catbirds seem to like them especially) who eat the berries and spread the seeds, but the variegation is lovely and I tend to overlook a plant's bad habits if it is useful in the design of the garden and the bad habits aren't tooooo bad.

The Pokeweed that is allowed to grow in my garden is Phytolacca american 'Steve Silberstein'. Not really a catchy name, except probably to the person for whom it was named. Most people seem to just call it 'that variegated poke weed'. It will grow in sun or shade, but seems to prefer sun. It need adequate moisture but isn't really too fussy other than that. Most of the seedlings will be variegated, though some will show a better variegation than others. Since the seed doesn't need any stratification for germinate, I usually just bury some berries near the base of the plant and then pot up the seedlings in the spring once they germinate. No point making lots of extra work or taking up extra space in my too small greenhouse starting plants that will start all by themselves.


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