A common sight in Virginia now are the purple berries hanging from green shrubs along the roadside. American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is an herbaceous perennial, considered a weed by most gardeners. Pokeweed is easy to find on roadsides, fields, and ditches. From summer to fall, pokeweed blooms small white flowers on peduncles (stems) making them stick out.
In the fall, the berries appear first as flatten green balls with a dimple in the center on hot pink racemes. Later, they inflate to deep purple, ¼-inch balls on red racemes. The contrast of purple and red or green and pink is so pretty that pokeweed is often used for fall floral arrangements.
The plant itself lends to a small tree shape. It could be shaped into a striking, well-branched miniature “tree.” There are variegated varieties which are especially ornamental. I discovered ‘Silverstein’ at the outdoor gardens of the U.S. Botanic Garden in DC.
Pokeweed berries are attractive but it is important to know that all parts of the mature plant are poisonous. Some people even get rashes from touching the plant. If you have children or see pokeweed in areas where children frequent such as school playgrounds, you should remove the plants so they are not tempted to eat the purple berries. Pull the thick stems after a rain when the soil is loose and when the plants are young. Mature plants develop taproots, making them difficult to remove completely.
American pokeweed is a native American herb. Native Americans used the plant for medicinal purposes such as a cardiac stimulant, for cancer treatment, and for rheumatism, epilepsy, and neurological disorders. The young green shoots and leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach or asparagus (only the young part, not the mature parts). The ink from the fruit was used as writing ink or clothes dye. The plant is an excellent source of food for birds, which is why it “pokes” up in so many places. This native American plant has a fascinating history in our American culture.
When pokeberry appears in your garden, consider its many uses. You can treat it like a weed and remove it or keep it as a native plant and let the birds enjoy the berries.