Image by liz west
By Bonnie L. Grant
While back in the day, Native Americans used parts of pokeberry weed in medicine and food, and many people down South have put the fruit into pies, you need to be careful how to use pokeweed berries to avoid toxic reactions. Therefore, home gardeners should identify what is pokeweed in order to help prevent accidental ingestion by domestic pets and children. Once identified, it is best to learn how to get rid of pokeberry plants, which are tenacious growers, getting up to ten feet tall.
What is Pokeweed?
Pokeweed or pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) is a native plant that grows in disturbed soils, such as fields and pastures. The plant is hazardous to livestock and all parts of the plant are considered toxic. It is a perennial with a red, woody stem boasting long, oval leaves that may get up to ten inches long.
Greenish flowers appear in July to September and yield to grape-like clusters of berries. While the fruits have been used in traditional medicine and pies, they are filled with compounds that cause unpleasant physical reactions.
It is best to know how to get rid of pokeberry plants to prevent ingestion by children. Small amounts generally do not harm adults, but the plant is full of several toxic compounds. The roots are the most toxic, but all parts of the plant are generally unsafe.
Leaves increase in toxicity with maturity but the juvenile foliage has been part of salads for generations. They need to be boiled twice, with a change of water each time to make the leaves safe for consumption. Berries are the least toxic, but it is wise not to ingest them unless you know proper preparation.
Common Pokeweed Control
Manual removal for common pokeweed control requires the gardener to dig deeply and get out the entire taproot. Pulling is not successful as it leaves behind roots that will regenerate. If you do nothing else, remove the fruits from the plant before they spread. The plant can produce up to 48,000 seeds, which remain viable in soil for 40 years. Birds seem unbothered by the berry toxicity and enjoy the fruit, planting seeds wherever they are excreted.
It is usually necessary to use chemicals to control pokeweed as the taproot is fleshy and extends deep into the soil. Chemicals to control pokeweed work best when the plant is young. Apply glyphosate directly to the leaves of the plant to kill it. This acts through the vascular system and while it takes a while to see results, eventually the chemical reaches the roots. Other chemicals to control pokeweed are dicamba and 2,4 D. Use spot applications on plants as they occur in your garden.
How to Use Pokeweed Berries
If you have some of this plant growing on your property and are feeling adventurous, you can try to use the berries in a pie. A safer use for the fruit, however, is as an ink or dye. Crushed berries yield a tremendous amount of juice, which was once used to color inferior wines. The juice also will dye fabrics a deep crimson or fuchsia color.