The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 14, 2005



Photo by Kay Fairweather

Name: Pokeweed, or simply Poke as it is often called, is Phytolacca americana. The name Poke is derived from the Algonquin Indian word "pakon" or "puccoon," which refers to plants used for dye. Pokeweed has several other common or local names including Common Pokeberry, Garget, Pigeonberry, Inkberry, Scoke, Red weed, and Red ink plant. Poke, in this context, is sometimes spelled "polk."

When and where seen: There is a large healthy stand of pokeweed alongside the road in front of my property on School Street. It has been there for several years. It is not invasive but has slowly spread into my front yard. Right now it is in its full fall glory laden with berries. It is native throughout the eastern U.S. and likes to grow at woodland edges.

Identification: Pokeweed is a perennial plant which grows about six to eight feet tall. The leaves are alternate, more or less oval, up to ten inches long, and have smooth edges. It has small white flowers on dangling stalks. Late in its growing season, around September and into October, the stems turn a bright purplish red and stand out against the green foliage and the dark purple-black berries. It has a large fleshy taproot which makes it very hard to pull up an established plant.

Uses: Pokeweed is used as food by humans and wildlife; it also has medicinal properties; and the juice from the berries has been used as an ink. Its usefulness as a garden plant is governed by your personal philosophy on "weeds" and whether or not you have young children who need to be kept from eating the poisonous berries. Wyman's Garden Encyclopedia refers to pokeweed as a "pernicious garden weed" which is not necessary to cultivate given all the other ornamental plants available.

Edible parts: In the Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, Steve Brill describes pokeweed as "one of the best-tasting vegetables on the planet" but only the very young green shoots are edible. It should be harvested in the spring before the shoots are eight inches tall and before the leaves have unfolded. It must be cooked in two or three changes of boiling water. If you want to try some next spring, you can mark the location of the plant now in the fall when it is much easier to identify. Some of you may remember the '60s song, "Poke Salad Annie," about a Louisiana girl who picks pokeweed. It was written by Tony Joe White and sung by Elvis Presley.

"Everyday 'fore supper time

She'd go down by the truck patch

And pick her a mess o' poke salad

And carry it home in a tote sack.

Poke Salad Annie, 'gators got your granny."

And yes, Virginia, it's true there is actually a cookbook tribute to Elvis called Graceland's Table — and it has a recipe called Poke Salad Annie where the poke shoots are fried in bacon fat.

Poisonous parts: While the roots, berries, and mature leaves are poisonous to humans, the berries are not poisonous to birds and are eaten by robins, catbirds, cedar waxwings, mourning doves, cardinals, and probably others. The birds thank me for the treat with Pollock-like paintings of blue and white here and there on the garden paths. As with many poisonous plants, the active components can be medicinal if prepared correctly and used in the proper dose.

References: Donald Wyman, Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia; Steve Brill, Wild Vegetarian Cookbook; Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Carol H. Woodward & H. W. Rickett, New York Botanical Garden's Field Guide to Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. What are you seeing in the woods or in your yard? Write a few notes about your observation. Send sightings, photos, or the whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito