Pokeweed (phytolacca americana), also known as American Pokeweed, dragon berries, and inkberries, is a poisonous herbaceous perennial. It is often mistaken for wild grapes because of the similarities in the fruits produced by the plants.
Parts of the invasive plant are edible, but only after being properly prepared to remove toxins. Eating parts of this plant can make your stomach cramp, and it can even be deadly in some cases.
Keep reading to learn more about pokeweed, including its origins, different varieties, and how to eradicate it.
This variety of pokeweed is native to North America, with the plant being found as far as the Midwest and South in some instances.
Throughout history, Native Americans have used pokeweed to treat various ailments. The roots of the plant can be steeped to make a tea that will soothe your aching joints. It was also made into a topical cream to treat skin disorders.
The weed was canned and distributed commercially in grocery stores from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Bush Brothers and Allen Canning Company both halted production of canned pokeweed, called poke sallet, in the 2000s.
American Pokeweed, a branching perennial, can grow anywhere from four to ten feet tall and boasts beautiful dark berries attached to red stems.
Pokeweed has a thick taproot, up to twelve inches long and four inches wide. The plant’s leaves are thin and bright green with tapered ends on both sides. Leaves of this weed can grow up to fourteen inches long.
The flowers of the weed are whiteish green, and sometime you will find a few pinkish-purple flowers. These flowers are bunched up in clusters, with only one flower per stem. These blooms mature in the early summer into the fall.
The flowers produce dark purplish-black berries that are often mistaken for wild grapes because they look so similar.
American Pokeweed is a common variety found in North America. There are three more varieties that we will discuss – Indian, Hawaiian, and Levantine varieties.
This variety’s scientific name is phytolacca sandwicensis and it is native to the Hawaiian Islands. It is a flowering variety and a fruit-bearing species that can grow anywhere from one to three feet tall and over ten feet wide.
This variety was known to be used by natives for thousands of years. The plant was crushed up to make a dark purple dye for use in tattoos.
This variety’s scientific name is phytolacca acinosa and it is native to eastern Asia, more specifically the Himalayas, Vietnam, and Japan. It can be found on the sides of highways, in riparian areas, and in home gardens.
This variety’s scientific name is phytolacca pruinosa and it is native to Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria. This weed flowers from April to July and produces black fruits. It is often found nearby dry, rocky hillsides and deforested areas.
Why is it a Weed?
Pokeweed may look like just a decorative plant, but it is a very invasive species. It starts off small but quickly grows out of control. If it is left untreated, it can outperform native plants and trees, draining their soil of all moisture and nutrients.
The seeds of this pesky little weed can remain dormant for over forty years in the soil, only emerging when the area is disturbed. It is such a problem because it produces quickly, with each plant producing thousands and thousands of seeds.
As a perennial plant, the roots and the plant itself stays alive throughout cold months. Although the stems, leaves, and flowers die each year and the weed stops producing fruit, it will grow back each year unless completely eradicated.
Pokeweed leaches vital vitamins and nutrients from the soil, starving nearby plants. It also grows tall enough to block out sunlight for shorter plants that may depend on sunlight for growth.
How It’s Spread
The most common way for pokeweed to be distributed is birds. Birds eat the berries from the weed and carry the seeds to new locations. Birds are thought to be responisble for a large amount of the distribution of the weed around the world.
The flowers of the plant are self-fertile and produce high yields of dark berries.
The seeds of this plant germinate from mid spring to early summer when the soil is the warmest. After the seeds germinate the plant grows rapidly and produces fruit with thousands of seeds.
As long as the crown of the root is intact, the plant can regenerate within two growing seasons.
Getting Rid of Pokeweed
Pulling plants up by hand is sufficient when they are still small, but once they are established they develop an extensive system of roots that makes removal nearly impossible.
Plants that have grown too large to be removed by hand can be dug out by the roots. They have to be completely removed to prevent future regeneration.
Commercial vinegar sprays and other organic choices, such as clove oil, nonanoic acid, or acetic acid are effective at controlling new growth.
These products are used as contact herbicides that will only affect the part of the plant it is sprayed on and dont leave behind any residue, so you will have to reapply as needed.
Established plants can be treated using glyphosate, which is not a selective herbicide, so be careful using it around grassy areas or any other plants you want to preserve.
Triclopyr is a selective herbicide that will target the weed, but not the healthy growths around it.
Herbicides can be applied to the foliage of the pokeweed plant, or if you want to make sure it does not grow back, you can use the herbicide directly on the stumps and roots.
Uses for Pokeweed
While this plant is poisonous, it can be cooked to remove the toxins. It has been known to be consumed as a vegetable, prepared much like asparagus.
In ancient history, it was used to treat skin conditions like mumps, to treat arthritis, and to promote weight loss.
It has been used to add color to wine and to make pink and red dyes.
Wrapping Up Pokeweed
Pokeweed is a perennial weed that produces dark berries that resemble wild grapes in the summer into the fall. This pesky weed can be removed using natural or manual methods, or it can be eradicated using chemical herbicides, depending on the location.
Are you interested in learning more about the weeds you may find invading your backyard? Check out the Common Weeds page on our website to learn more!