American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

American Pokeweed, Common Pokeweed, Garnet, Pidgeon Berry, Poke, Pokeberry, Pokeweed, Scoke

Where the American pokeweed thrives, curious glimpses over the garden fence are common. The perennial captivates the viewer at the latest when the blue-black berries form from the upright or hanging inflorescences. The herbaceous plant is a rarity in the garden. This may be due to their slight poison content or vehement urge to spread. In return, a pokeweed has beneficial attributes that amaze even experienced gardeners. Explore all relevant information about location and maintenance here. The options for their use have some surprises to hold.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Phytolacca americana, also known as American pokeweed, pokeweed, poke sallet, pokeberry, dragon berries, and inkberry, is a poisonous, herbaceous perennial plant in the pokeweed family Phytolaccaceae.

Pokeweed is a member of the family Phytolaccaceae, and is a large herbaceous perennial plant, growing up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) in height over the course of a summer. One to several branches grow from the crown of a thick, white, fleshy taproot; Michael D. K. Owen describes the branches as “stout, smooth, [and] green to somewhat purplish”. Simple, entire leaves with long petioles are alternately arranged along the stem.

Pokeweeds reproduce only by their large, glossy black, lens-shaped seeds, which are contained in a fleshy, 10-celled, purple-to-near-black berry that has crimson juice. The flowers are perfect, radially symmetric, white or green, with 4–5 sepals and no petals. The flowers develop in elongated clusters termed racemes. The seeds have long viability, able to germinate after many years in the soil.

  • Morphology

Plant Type: Perennial herbaceous plant which can reach a height of 3 m (10 ft) but is usually 1.2 to 2 m (4 to 6+1⁄2 ft). The plant must be a few years old before the root grows large enough to support this size. The stem is usually red late in the season. There is an upright, erect central stem early in the season, which changes to a spreading, horizontal form later with the weight of the berries. The plant dies back to the roots each winter. The stem has a chambered pith.

Leaves: The leaves are alternate with coarse texture with moderate porosity. Leaves can reach 41 centimetres (16 inches) in length. Each leaf is entire. Leaves are medium green and smooth, with a distinct odor that many characterize as unpleasant.

Flowers: The flowers have 5 regular parts with upright stamens and are up to 5 millimetres (1⁄4 in) wide. They have white petal-like sepals without true petals, on white pedicels and peduncles in an upright or drooping raceme, which darken as the plant fruits. Blooms first appear in early summer and continue into early fall.

Fruit: A shiny dark purple berry held in racemose clusters on pink pedicels with a pink peduncle. Pedicels without berries have a distinctive rounded five part calyx. Fruits are round with a flat indented top and bottom. Immature berries are green, turning white and then blackish purple.

Root: Thick central taproot which grows deep and spreads horizontally. Rapid growth. Tan cortex, white pulp, moderate number of rootlets. Transversely cut root slices show concentric rings. No nitrogen fixation ability.

  • Chemistry

The entire pokeweed plant contains triterpenes such as phytolaccagenin, jaligonic acid, phytolaccagenic acid (phytolaccinic acid), esculentic acid, and pokeberrygenin (in the berries), as well as the saponins phytolaccasides A, B, D, E, and G, and phytolaccasaponins B, E, and G (in the roots).

The roots also contain other triterpenoids such as oleanolic acid, α-spinasterol and its glucoside, α-spinasteryl-β-D-glucoside, and a palmityl-derivative, 6-palmytityl-α-spinasteryl-6-D-glucoside, as well as a similarly functionalized stigmasterol derivative, 6-palmityl-Δ7-stigmasterol-Δ-D-glucoside. Pokeweed berries also contain betalain pigments such as betanin and others. The leaves contain a number of common flavonols. Seeds of pokeweed contain the phenolic aldehyde caffeic aldehyde. Pokeweed also contains lectins, such as pokeweed mitogen.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

The pokeweed is quite undemanding when it comes to its location. It thrives in both the sun and half-shade. Ideally, the place is somewhat protected. The North American perennial is also slightly more sensitive to frost than its Asian relatives and prefers a warm place in the garden.

Watering

The water requirement of the pokeweed is particularly high in dry summer months. Make sure that the soil is always kept moist. Tempered water from the rain barrel or the cistern is ideal for pouring.

Soil

Phytolacca americana feels most comfortable in a well-drained, sandy-loam substrate that is as humus and nutrient-rich as possible. The pH is best between neutral and slightly acidic. Avoid water logging – apart from that a fresh to moist floor is recommended.

Fertilizing

During the growing season, it is also advisable to fertilize the pokeweed every three to four weeks with some compost or horn shavings.

Planting Instructions

The best time to plant the perennial is spring or autumn. If you want to put the pokeweed in the garden again, you should keep a planting distance of at least 60 centimeters (24 in) – better 80 centimeters (32 in). The growth of Phytolacca americana should not be underestimated: since the bushy plant quickly grows to a stately size, it can sometimes shade its neighbors hungry for sun. Excavate the planting hole so that it is twice the size of the root ball.

Pruning

A cut of Phytolacca americana is usually not necessary. You can prevent the ornamental plant from multiplying by self-sowing by cutting off the inflorescence after they have faded. If you want to completely remove the plant from your garden, the entire taproot must be excavated completely. In order to avoid skin irritation, it is better to wear gloves during all care measures.

Propagation

In principle, American pokeweed can be propagated by sowing or root cuttings. Often, however, the pokeweed has to be stopped in its urge to spread. For sowing, the seeds are harvested in autumn and dried over winter. Since the pokeweed is a cold germ, the seeds first need a cold stimulus to be able to germinate.

Pests and Diseases

American pokeweed is a very robust, wide-spreading perennial with hardly any plant diseases or pests. Even with snails, the plant has no problems – on the contrary: the poisonous parts of the plants, especially the seeds and roots of the pokeweed, keep the pests at a distance and are even used as a natural control agent.

Wintering

The pokeweed is a perennial plant that withstands the winter in mild locations without damage. While the American pokeweed perennial can be somewhat sensitive to severe frosts, the Indian form is somewhat more resistant. When the first cold days in November announce the beginning of winter, the fruit stands dry up, the plant withers and dries up. The beet-like taproot usually survives the winter months without problems and sprouts again in spring. For protection, you should cut the plant close to the ground in autumn after the leaves have withered and cover it with some brushwood, straw or dry leaves.

To be on the safe side in order to enjoy American pokeweed again next year, collect some berries in the fall, take the seeds from them and multiply the plant by sowing.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Horticulture

Some pokeweeds are grown as ornamental plants, mainly for their attractive berries. A number of cultivars have been selected for larger fruit panicles.

  • Folk and alternative medicine

Owen notes that “Indians and early settlers used the root in poultices and certain drugs for skin diseases and rheumatism.”

The late 19th century herbal, the King’s American Dispensatory, describes various folk medical uses that led individuals to ingest pokeberry products. Phytolacca extract was advertised as a prescription weight loss drug in the 1890s.

Pokeweed is promoted in alternative medicine as a dietary supplement intended to treat a wide range of maladies including mumps, arthritis and various skin conditions. While pokeweed has been subject to laboratory research, there is no medical evidence that it has any beneficial effect on human health.

  • Food uses

Poke is a traditional southern Appalachian food. The leaves and stems of young plants can be eaten, but must be cooked by boiling two or more times with the water drained and replaced each time. The leaves taste similar to spinach; the stems, similar to asparagus.

The roots are poisonous, as are mature leaves and stems. Some festivals still celebrate the plant’s use in its historical food preparations.

As late as the 1990s two companies commercially canned and sold pokeweed, but in 2000 the last one, the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, closed down its operation.

  • Nutrition

A 100g serving of pokeweed contains 20 calories and 3.1 grams of carbohydrates, 1.6 grams of sugars, 1.5 grams of dietary fiber, 0.4 grams of fat, 2.3 grams of protein, and is a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese. It contains low levels of vitamin B1, vitamin B6, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

  • Other uses

Plant toxins from Phytolacca are being explored as a means to control zebra mussels.

The toxic extract of ripe pokeweed berries can be processed to yield a pink dye. Early European settlers to North America would procure a fine red dye from the plant’s roots.

During the middle of the 19th century wine often was coloured with juice from pokeberries.

Phytolacca contains lectins known as Pokeweed mitogen which are used to stimulate B-cell proliferation which is useful for B-cell assays, immunodeficiency diagnostic test, and immunotherapy.

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) Details

Common name American Pokeweed, Common Pokeweed, Garnet, Pidgeon Berry, Poke, Pokeberry, Pokeweed, Scoke
Botanical name Phytolacca americana
Plant type Herbaceous Perennial
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 4 ft. 0 in. - 10 ft. 0 in.
Width 4 ft. 0 in. - 10 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Gold/Yellow