pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
red ink plant
"Poke" is thought to come from "pocan" or "puccoon," probably from
the Algonquin term for a plant that contains dye.
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of pokeweed
is Phytolacca americana L. The infraspecific taxonomy of Phytolacca
americana has been long disputed. For over a century, two species
have been discussed - Phytolacca american and Phytolacca rigida.
Most recently, Phytolacca rigida is now considered a variety of Phyto-
lacca americana. While Phytolacca americans var. americana has
been recorded occurring in Facquier County, Phytolacca americana
var. rigida, although occurring in Virginia, has not yet been recorded
as occurring in Facquier County. The varieties are not always clearly
distinct. Some specimens combine the erect inflorescences of var.
rigida with the long pedicels of variety americana. Such intermediate
plants can be seen as far north as coastal Delaware, sometimes grow-
ing with var. americana.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
Habit: This native perennial plant is up to 8' tall, branching regularly.
The stems are smooth, round, and hairless, varying from light green to
brilliant purplish red. The latter color becomes more prominent as the
season progresses and gives a striking appearance when fully mature
because of the bright reddish purple coloration.
Leaves: The rather large alternate leaves are up to 10" long and 4"
across. They are broadly lanceolate or ovate, with smooth margins,
and prominent veins. Their color is often light green or yellowish
green, particularly in sunny locations, and they have narrow petioles
about ½1" long.
Flowers: Many of the stems terminate in an inflorescence that is
elongate and cylindrical, about 3-6" long, and 1" across. It consists
of a narrow raceme of numerous small flowers that are arranged all
around the flowering stalk on short pedicels. These pedicels may be
green, white, pink, or purplish red, depending on the stage of develop-
ment for the flowers or fruits. The flowers are about ¼" across, con-
sisting of 5 lobed white or pink sepals that flare outward, no true
petals, and several green carpels folded together in the center. The
shape of the carpels resembles an inverted bowl that is indented in
Fruit/Seeds: After the flowers fade away, these carpels develop into
fruits. When mature, they become dark purple and rather shiny on the
surface, containing reddish purple juice. They are about ¼" across,
and shaped like slightly flattened spheres. Each fruit contains 10
glossy black seeds that are smooth and lens-shaped.
Roots: The root system consists of large deep taproot. When damaged,
this plant exudes a rank odor.
REGENERATION PROCESS: Pokeweed propogates itself through
HABITAT TYPES: Pokeweed is quite common where it occurs, and
widely regarded as a common weed. Habitats include moist meadows
in woodland openings, thickets, woodland borders, gravelly seeps,
edges of marshes, powerline clearances, fence rows, pastures, aban-
doned fields, vacant lots, neglected gardens, and areas along drainage
ditches, roadsides, and railroads. This plant favors areas with a his-
tory of disturbance from mowing, plowing, and other causes.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Pokeweed prefers partial sun, moist
conditions, and rich loamy soil. However, this plant will grow in full
sun, drier conditions, and other kinds of soil, consisting of clay or
gravelly material. Under these less than ideal conditions, plants will
be substantially smaller in size. When drought occurs, the lower leaves
may wilt, turn yellow, and fall off their stems. The foliage appears to
be impervious to insects and disease.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Flowering is from late spring to fall
(May to October).
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Pokeweed is found throughout the
eastern portions of the United States and Canada, from Florida to
Quebec, although it is not recorded as occurring in the Canadian
maritime provinces. It extends west through the Gulf coast states
and the southwest, and occurs the entire length of the western and
northwestern Pacific states. It encompasses most of the Great Plains
and prairie regions; however, it does not naturally occur in the Rocky
Mountain states, or any of the Canadian provinces west or north of
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The flowers are visited primarily by
Syrphid flies and Halictine bees. Wasps and other kinds of flies are less
common visitors. These insects usually seek nectar; Halictine bees also
collect pollen. The berries are popular with birds, especially songbirds
(northern cardinal, brown thrasher, and northern mockingbird) favoring
brushy thickets and woodland areas, and are said to be an important
source of food for mourning doves. The berries are a source of food to
some mammals, including the grey fox, raccoon, and opossum. These
animals help to distribute the seeds far and wide. Mammalian herbivores
usually won't consume the foliage and stems because they are somewhat
toxic and bitter, particularly when this plant is mature. They contain
chemicals that can damage red blood cells. The berries are also slightly
toxic because of the seeds, although birds (and possibly some mammals)
enjoy some immunity from adverse effects. There have been reports of
birds becoming intoxicated from eating the berries, which have a flavor
that is bland and mildly sweet.
Pokeweed is well known to herbalists, cell biologists, and toxicologists.
According to some accounts, its young leaves, after being boiled in two
waters (the first being discarded) to deactivate toxins, are edible, even
being available canned (they pose no culinary threat to spinach). Young
shoots are eaten as a substitute for asparagus. Ripe berries were used to
color wine and are eaten (cooked) in pies. Pokeweed is used as an emetic,
a purgative, a suppurative, a spring tonic, and a treatment for various
skin maladies, especially hemorrhoids.
Pokeweed mitogen is a mixture of glycoprotein lectins that are powerful
immune stimulants, promoting T- and B-lymphocyte proliferation and
increased immun-oglobulin levels. "Accidental exposure to juices from
Pokeweed via ingestion, breaks in the skin, and the conjunc- tiva has
brought about hematological changes in numerous people, including
researchers studying this species". Poke antiviral proteins are of great
interest for their broad, potent antiviral (including Human Immuno-
deficiency Virus) and antifungal properties. Saponins found in Phyto-
lacca americana and Phytolacca dodecandra are lethal to the mollus-
can intermediate host of schistosomiasis. The toxic compounds in
Phytolacca americana are phytolaccatoxin and related triterpene
saponins, the alkaloid phytolaccin, various histamines, and oxalic
acid. When ingested, the roots, leaves, and fruits may poison animals,
including Homo sapiens. Symptoms of poke poisoning include sweat-
ing, burning of the mouth and throat, severe gastritis, vomiting, bloody
diarrhea, blurred vision, elevated white-blood-cell counts, unconscious-
ness, and, rarely, death.
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