One of the most distinct and overbearing plants you may encounter in late Summer is Pokeweed. It’s large size, mature reddish-purple stems and dark purple berries give it a unique appearance. It has a complicated history in that it is valuable to wildlife, has been used as food and medicine by Native Americans and settlers alike, and yet it is a highly toxic plant.
This will be a complete profile on this unique native plant.
In this article:
- What is Pokeweed
- What are the pros and cons of Pokeweed
- Identification / Characteristics
- Invasiveness and Control
- Growing conditions for Pokeweed
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Pokeweed
- Where to buy Pokeweed
- Uses of Pokeweed
What is Pokeweed
Pokeweed is one of the largest herbaceous perennial plants native to North America, growing up to 10′ tall by 3′ wide in full sun and moist soil. Scientifically known as Phytolacca americana, in late Summer it stands out with it’s dark red stems, large leaves, and clusters of dark purple berries that are beloved by birds.  
Although toxic to humans and many mammals, both Native Americans and settlers valued the plant as a source of food and medicine. In fact, you could buy canned ‘poke’ up until recently in certain regional supermarkets.
It’s large size and prolific flowering also mean it will make many seeds. And it can become aggressive if left unchecked and readily colonizes disturbed areas. This generally isn’t a problem in vacant lots, but can be a nescience in backyard borders as children may mistake the toxic berries for grapes.
- Pokeweed was carried to Europe in the 1600’s and used to color wine
- A vigorous self-seeder, Pokeweed has successfully invaded and colonized Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia
- Pokeweed is also invasive in California and Arizona where it has become naturalized
- Pokeweed was listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1820 until being removed in 1910 (most likely due to Pokeweed being toxic)
- American settlers regularly used pokeweed medicinally to treat a variety of ailments
- Juice from the poisonous berries can be used to make ink or dye.
- While many historical medicinal uses were documented, so too were physiological problems from the consumption or production of drugs containing Pokeweed components
Native Range of Pokeweed
The native range of Pokeweed covers the Eastern United States and the Southern Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. From Texas to Florida, North to Maine/Quebec, and then West to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma.
Although it’s native range is large, Pokeweed has also become invasive around the world. Invading every continent except Antarctica, it has a tremendous ability to self-seed.
Natural habitat of Pokeweed
Pokeweed seeds will germinate best in disturbed soil. So, vacant or abandoned land, powerline cuts, roadside ditches will generally all grow pokeweed as long as there is enough moisture present.
Pokeweed Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Phytolacca americana|
|Common Name(s)||Pokeweed, Pokeberry, Poke, Poke salad, Pigeon berry, American nightshade, Cancer root|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||East & Southern United States, Zones 4-8|
|Bloom Time||July to September|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Four weeks, white|
|Spacing / Spread||2-3′|
|Light Requirements||Full sun to partial shade|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam to clay|
|Moisture||Moist to medium moist|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Bees, syphid flies|
What are the Pros and Cons of Pokeweed
Young leaves and shoots of Pokeweed have been used as a pot herb for centuries. It is necessary to only take young shoots, and boil them repeatedly until the water is clear (all parts of the plant are toxic), but this food is a staple in many parts of Eastern North America. 
Pokeweed heavily self-seeds and invades disturbed areas. The birds and other animals who consume the ripe berries will spread seed far and wide.
Also, if you clear an area, you may have many new Pokeweed plants that germinate from seeds that have been lying dormant for 10 years of more! I’ve had it happen to me. After clearing a full canopy of Bush Honeysuckle, I had probably 100-200 Pokeweed plants germinate the following Spring/Summer. So the seed bank seems to remain viable for many years.
Pokeweed is toxic to humans and many mammals. Only young shoots/leaves may be eaten after careful preparation. The berries resemble wild grapes, making it dangerous for positioning of children who think they will be getting a sweet treat, and fatalities have occurred.  The root is quite toxic and many fatalities occurred in the 1800’s from root herbal tea made with Pokeweed. 
It is important for you to teach your children not to forage unless well supervised, or you have trained them to properly identify a plant.
I mentioned that Pokeweed is aggressive. Well, they are not just aggressive but huge! These plants can grow 10′ tall by 3-4′ wide in optimum conditions. So, if you let them grow unchecked, it could be a big job to remove them later.
Identification and Characteristics of Pokeweed
As a herbaceous perennial, Pokeweed will emerge each Spring from the ground as young shoots. They rapidly grow through June and July and begin flowering. Full size should be achieved in August, and berries will begin to ripen then (and the stalks will generally redden).
Once frost occurs, flowering will stop. The plant will turn white-yellow and go dormant in Winter, leaving an almost un-mistakeable pile of stalks. The rootstock will then lie dormant until Spring returns and the cycle renews.
Pokeweed will grow up to 10′ tall, but is often around 4-8′ (120-240 cm). It branches frequently up the stalk. The smooth stems of Pokeweed are light green to reddish-purple in color, hairless, and round.  The color changes as the stalk ages.
As the season progresses the stem will turn a red-purple color, usually coinciding when the berries turn ripe.
After the blooming is complete, the pistils will develop (fruits) berries that are shaped somewhat like flatten spheres. Initially light green, as they ripen they turn a dark purple and contain 10 shiny black seeds. The unripe berries and seeds are very toxic. 
Flavor of the toxic pokeweed berries
Pokeweed berries are reported to initially taste sweet, followed by an acrid taste.  If Pokeweed grows in your area, make sure you instruct them to never eat the berries as they are quite toxic, especially to children .
The root system of Pokeweed is a deep tap-root. It is difficult to remove mature plants via digging. 
Identification Pictorial Guide
Invasiveness and control of Pokeweed
For young plants and seedlings, pulling is an effective means of control. But for more established plants, repeated cuttings or herbicide is recommended. This is because the extensive taproot is difficult to remove and stores much energy. So, cutting an established plant will just regrow itself quickly using carbohydrate energy that is stored in the root.
Herbicides that are effective of killing Pokeweed
Research has found that glyphosate is the most effective herbicide for controlling and killing Pokeweed, being between 80-90% effective. Glyphosate provided better control of Pokeweed than other common herbicides such as 2,4-D or dicamba, which were approximately 60% effective. 
I personally have had good success for spot treating mature plants by applying herbicide to freshly cut stalks and leaves late in the season, but before berries have ripened.
Toxicity of Pokeweed
All parts of Pokeweed are toxic. The main toxic principle is saponins, oxalic acid and phytolaccotoxin. Furthermore there may be alkaloids present in the plant. The root is the most toxic part  and consumption could be fatal. While older stalks, leaves, and berries are toxic to a lesser degree. Ingestion of the plant can be fatal.  I have found one recorded case of fatal poisoning of a child who at berries in 1961. 
Symptoms of Pokeweed poisoning
People who ingest Pokeweed initially experience a burning sensation in the mouth and throat. In several hours symptoms usually advance to some combination of the following:
- Abdominal cramps / pain / spasms
- Diarrhea, bloody or watery
- Inability to walk
In general, most people recover from these symptoms within 24-48 hours, but fatalities due to Pokeweed poisoning were recorded in the 1800’s. However, even when Pokeweed is prepared in the traditional way, poisonings have occurred. There was a case of 21 campers eating Poke Salad prepared by a counselor who was very experienced in the preparation. Despite his changing the water several times during boiling, all the campers experienced symptoms of poisoning and several needed hospitalization due to prolonged symptoms. 
In addition to improper preparation, there have been cases of Pokeweed poisoning due to misidentification of the plant. Generally this is people mistaking the root for parsnip or horseradish.    
If you think you may have ingested pokeweed, you should call the poison control center. In the United States the number is 1-800-222-1222.
Pokeweed and skin
The sap of Pokeweed is a harsh skin irritant and is sometimes known as Pokeweed Rash. It has been documented for centuries that getting the sap on bare skin may cause a painful rash. Contact with ‘fresh juice’ of Pokeweed produces a burning and smarting sensation, and can severely inflame the eyelids should one rub their eye after contact with sap.  
“the juice of the fresh plant, or a strong decoction of the root, applied locally may strongly irritate the skin, especially if tender or abraded”. – New Zealand Journal of Agriculture 1913
Sap may be absorbed through any open cuts or abrasions on skin. So, beware of of yourself before handling this plant. As skin may be irritated if you are allergic.
Many sources state to only handle pokeweed while wearing gloves. I have personally touched the bare stems and leaves of pokeweed plant without ever having an adverse effect (so apparently I’m not allergic). This is via pulling seedlings that germinated, or just hiking. However, one should avoid contact with sap, roots, or berries.
Treatment of Pokeweed Rash
In general, to treat Pokeweed rash wash the effected area thoroughly with soap and water. Do so as soon as possible. If symptoms persist, contact a doctor.
Growing conditions of Pokeweed
Pokeweed prefers full sun, which is six hours of direct sunlight per day. It does grow in partial shade (4-6 hours of sun), but will be much smaller in size (2-4′). 
The preference of Pokeweed is moist soil. Established plants can tolerate occasional drought though. When drought occurs the lower leaves may turn yellow.
If one wishes to cultivate Pokeweed, the primary maintenance will be cutting the plant back after Winter, and dealing with new plants. Pokeweed spreads by seed, and there will be lots of ‘volunteers’.
Pokeweed should never require fertilizer. It is extremely efficient at photosynthesis and can get quite weedy even in inhospitable places.
How to Grow Pokeweed from Seed
Germinating Pokeweed seeds is fairly easy. Research by the US Forestry Service found scarified fresh seed can be germinated at 75F at relatively high germination rates (56%-90%). While unscarified fresh seed that underwent cold stratification for 5 months was found to have germination rates of 54% (sand) and 68% when stratified in sphagnum peat moss. 
Armesto et al. found that they could achieve an 80% germination on cleaned, but unstratified seed in approximately 10 days. Their process was to separate the seed from the pulp of the fruit, and rinse. Then, germinate the seed on the surface of a growing medium in 12h light / 12h dark cycle, along with a fluctuating temperature of 20/30c. 
So, what would a regular homeowner have to do? From a practical standpoint, to germinate Pokeweed seeds you should collect the seed from ripe berries in the Fall and clean them using a colander to remove berry pulp. Then, just scatter the seed on disturbed soil and walk on it outdoors in the Fall. This would ensure good contact with the soil, and allow the seeds to be exposed to light in order to break dormancy.
Remember – berries and seeds of Pokeweed are toxic. So wear protective gloves, and don’t handle berries/juice/seeds if there are any cuts or scrapes on your hands.
Wildlife value of Pokeweed
Pokeweed is especially popular to birds. Over 20 species of bird eat the dark ripe purple berries from Pokeweed. Now, the berries of Pokeweed are toxic, but birds and some mammals are immune.    
Dogs and cats
Pokeweed is toxic to both dogs and cats. The bitterness of the plant will likely dissuade them from consumption. But none the less, you should keep your pets away from this plant.
In general, horses will avoid this plant if possible. But, should the plant be mixed into the feed, it is very possible to have poisoning to a horse. There has been a case of a pony that lived in a dirt paddock that was surrounded by Pokeweed. This pony became very poisoned from eating numerous pokeweed plants that grew within the paddock. 
Research has been done on Pokeweed effects on cattle. It was found that they generally will avoid eating the plant, as it is quite bitter. But when mixed in with feed at high proportions, the cows reluctantly ate the feed and experienced many symptoms of Pokeweed poisoning. When at lower rates, it had no effect on their appetite or had any apparent physiological effects.
Deer and other mammals
Deer and other herbivories avoid eating this plant due to its toxicity of the foliage. It has a bitter flavor, and it generally isn’t consumed.
The berries are also toxic, but are consumed by some animals such as fox, raccoon, and opossum.  So, it appears that the toxicity doesn’t effect all mammals. Furthermore, not all parts of the plant have the same level of toxicity, as has been observed over the years.
Where you can buy Pokeweed
Pokeweed is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. I have never seen it for sale at any nursery. But, as a native plant, it is possible that it may be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map. I would strongly recommend you contact them before showing up though, as I doubt this plant would be for sale.
However, there are many sources online claiming to sell pokeweed seeds. So, purchasing seed online and germinating it would be your best bet at obtaining this plant. You could also forage seed in the Fall, as the plant is very identifiable in late summer through early Fall.
Uses of Pokeweed
Edible uses of Pokeweed
For those readers who skipped the section on toxicity, I urge you to go back and read it. It is important for you to know that although there is a long history of people eating Pokeweed in poke salad and other forms, it is highly toxic. There are even cases where experienced preparers of Pokeweed have gotten poisoned.  So, be aware and know that I am providing this as informative only and assume no responsibility for your actions.
Both Native Americans and settlers ate Pokeweed.   From the Wild Food Trail Guide by Alan Hall, the edible parts of Pokeweed are young shoots shorter than 6″ & young leaves can make a tasty cooked vegetable. They need to be pulled or cut off at ground level being careful to not take the root, as the root is bitter tasting, toxic and could prove fatal  . Do not take shoots with purple color, and do not take mature stems.
You can cook the shoots like you would asparagus. But, you will need to boil and drain the leaves 2-3 times to get them tender as well as removing poisonous toxins. Once the water stays clear, then the leaves/shoots should be safe to eat.
Again, from “The Wild Food Trail Guide”, Shoots may be peeled and then fried in batter or made into pickles. To make pokeweed pickles, first blanch them and then cover with hot vinegar and pickling spices. 
Winter supply of Pokeweed Shoots
Alan Hall also notes in his book “The Wild Food Trail Guide” that one may get a Winter supply of Pokeweed shoots. In a homesteading situation, this could be an interesting way to have fresh greens. After the first hard frost in Autumn, he states you can dig out roots of large plants in 6-8″ in length. Then simply pot them up and take them to your basement. Over the course of several months the roots will use their stored energy to continually grow new shoots. 
Research has long been conducted on Pokeweed, possibly due to it’s history as medicinal for settlers. A lectin can be extracted from pokeweed that stimulates the division of B cells, plasma, and T cells to test immune response and antibody production.  Other research has been conducted into these mitogens and how they could be used to treat cancer.   But this does not mean you should consume pokeweed to fight off cancer, as you would likely end up eating enough pokeweed to kill yourself.
Native American Uses
Over 20 uses of Pokeweed by seven different Native American Tribes have been documented.  I’m going to relay some of those uses below. I want to note and stress that Pokeweed is toxic. And I do not recommend you consume the plant unless you know what you are doing, and I assume no risk or liability for your actions.
That being said, some of the uses of Pokeweed by Native Americans include the following:
- Berries were used as medicine or made into wine
- Roots were used for rheumatism
- Poultice was used to treat swellings and ulcers/sores
- Infusion of root was used to treat eczema
- As previously described, young shoots were cooked and eaten as pot herb, while the root was known to be toxic, and thus avoided.
- The (toxic) roots were combined (in small doses & with special preparation) with sarasparilla and mountain grape to treat rheumatism, a stimulant, and ‘blood purifier’.
- Treatment for sores and swellings were made from the roasted roots, bittersweet, yellow parilla, and bark of elder by boiling in lard or tallow and combined with beeswax.
- Deocction of stems would be used to treat colds
- Leaves would be used to remove zits, pimples, and blackheads
- Berries used as dye or ink
 – Phytolacca americana Linnaeus, efloras.org. Accessed 20FEB2022.
 – Phytolacca americana L. USDA NRCS. Accessed 21FEB2022.
 – Goldstein, Samuel W. “A phytochemical and pharmacological study of Phytolacca americana Linne.” Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland. 1935. Accessed 24FEB2022.
 – Krochmal, Arnold, and Philip W. Le Quesne. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): possible source of a molluscicide. Vol. 177. Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, 1970.
 – Kingsbury, John M. “Commentary: One Man’s Poison.” BioScience (1980): 171-176. Accessed 23FEB2022
 – Lewis, Walter H., and Peter R. Smith. “Poke root herbal tea poisoning.” Jama 242.25 (1979): 2759-2760. Accessed 22FEB2022
 – Kelly M. Patches, William S. Curran, and Dwight D. Lingenfelter. “Effectiveness of Herbicides for Control of Common Pokeweed (phytolacca Americana) In Corn and Soybean.” Weed technology, v. 31 ,.2 pp. 193-201.
 – Kingsbury JM (1964) Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, p 227
 – Oehme, Frederick W. “The hazard of plant toxicities to the human population.” Effects of Poisonous Plants on Livestock. Academic Press, 1978. 67-80.
 – De Smet, P. A. G. M. “Phytolacca americana.” Adverse Effects of Herbal Drugs 2. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1993. 253-261.
 – Common Pokeweed (Poisonous Plant). University of Illinois Extension, NRCS. June 2004. Accessed 23FEB2022.
 – Ma, X. C., et al. “Epidemiological survey of a food poisoning event caused by Phytolacca americana leave.” Disease Sueveillance 29 (2014): 333-334.
 – Knight-Trent, A. Heather, and Melanie Johns Cupp. “Pokeweed.” Toxicology and Clinical Pharmacology of Herbal Products. Humana Press, Totowa, NJ, 2000. 237-243.
 – Kim, Yang-Weon, et al. “Two cases of Phytolacca americana intoxication with confusion and abdominal cramping.” Journal of The Korean Society of Clinical Toxicology 6.2 (2008): 146-148.
 – Cockayne, A.H. (1913) “Ink-weed: its value as a poison.” New Zealand J. Agricult. 7: 369.
 – White JC (1887) “Dermatitis Venenata: an account of the action of external irritants upon the skin.” Reported as Phytolacca decandra, p.116 Boston: Cupples and Hurd
 – Hendrickson, J. M., and K. F. Hilbert. “Pokeweed berries not poisonous for chickens.” J Am Vet Med Assoc 78 (1931): 556-8.
 – Krochmal, Arnold. “Germinating pokeberry seed (< i> Phytolacca americana L.).” Research Note NE-114. Upper Darby, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station. 4p. 114 (1970).
 – Armesto, J. J., G. P. Cheplick, and M. J. McDonnell. “Observations on the reproductive biology of Phytolacca americana (Phytolaccaceae).” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club (1983): 380-383.
 – Deyrup, Mark, Jayanthi Edirisinghe, and Beth Norden. “The diversity and floral hosts of bees at the Archbold Biological Station, Florida (Hymenoptera: Apoidea).” Insecta Mundi (2002): 544. Accessed 24FEB2022
 – Mathis, Codey L., et al. “Pollinator communities vary with vegetation structure and time since management within regenerating timber harvests of the Central Appalachian Mountains.” Forest Ecology and Management 496 (2021): 119373. Accessed 24FEB2022
 – Martin, Alexander Campbell, Herbert Spencer Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. “American wildlife & plants: a guide to wildlife food habits: the use of trees, shrubs, weeds, and herbs by birds and mammals of the United States.” pp391. Courier Corporation, 1961.
- Malmborg, Patti Katusic, and Mary F. Willson. “Foraging ecology of avian frugivores and some consequences for seed dispersal in an Illinois woodlot.” The Condor 90.1 (1988): 173-186. Accessed 21FEB2022
 – Beal, Foster Ellenborough Lascelles. Food of the robins and bluebirds of the United States. No. 171. US Department of Agriculture, 1915. Accessed 21FEB2022
 – McDonnell, Mark J., et al. “Bird‐dispersal of Phytolacca americana L. and the influence of fruit removal on subsequent fruit development.” American Journal of Botany 71.7 (1984): 895-901.
 – Hendrickson, J. M., and K. F. Hilbert. “Pokeweed berries not poisonous for chickens.” J Am Vet Med Assoc 78 (1931): 556-8.
 – Barnett, B. D. “Toxicity of pokeberries (fruit of Phytolacca americana Large) for turkey poults.” Poultry Science 54.4 (1975): 1215-1217.
 – Valle, Emanuela, Diana Vergnano, and Carlo Nebbia. “Suspected Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana L.) Poisoning as the Cause of Progressive Cachexia in a Shetland Pony.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 42 (2016): 82-87.
 – Kingsbury, J. M., and R. B. Hillman. “Pokeweed (Phytolacca) poisoning in a dairy herd.” Cornell Veterinarian 55 (1965): 534-538.
 – Pokeweed. North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 23FEB2022.
 – Geo. M. Hocking (1977) Folk Medical Practice in North Carolina and Adjacent States, Quarterly Journal of Crude Drug Research, 15:3, 152-154, DOI: 10.3109/13880207709055168 Accessed 22FEB2022.
 – Hall, Alan. The wild food trailguide. pp. 84-85. Holt McDougal, 1976.
 – Perry, Myra Jean. “Food use of wild plants by Cherokee Indians.” (1974). Accessed 22FEB2022.
 – (2005) Pokeweed Mitogen. In: Vohr HW. (eds) Encyclopedic Reference of Immunotoxicology. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/3-540-27806-0_1183 Accessed 24FEB2022
 – Numa, K., Tani, T., & Kodama, M. (1990). Trial of anticancer immunotherapy with immobilized pokeweed mitogen: Immunotherapy by extracorporeal circulation. Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy, 32(2), 125–130. doi:10.1007/bf01754209 Accessed 24FEB2022
 – Domashevskiy, A.V.; Goss, D.J. Pokeweed Antiviral Protein, a Ribosome Inactivating Protein: Activity, Inhibition and Prospects. Toxins 2015, 7, 274-298. https://doi.org/10.3390/toxins7020274 Accessed 23FEB2022
 – Tantaquidgeon, Gladys, 1972, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Historical Commission Anthropological Papers #3, page 32
 – Henkel, Alice. “American medicinal flowers, fruits, and seeds.” No. 26. pp5. US Department of Agriculture, 1915.
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