What is Pokeweed?

Mary McMahon

Pokeweed is a term used to refer collectively to many plants in the Phytolacca genus, most particularly P. americana, which is native to North America. Some pokeweeds are invasive, especially in North America, and these plants have historically been used in folk medicine and cuisine, despite the fact that they are poisonous, and special care must be taken to prepare pokeweed products for consumption. Plants in this genus may also be known by names such as inkberry, pokeroot, pokeberry, or poke salet.

Pokeweed may be used to treat swollen glands, joint pain or arthritis.
Pokeweed may be used to treat swollen glands, joint pain or arthritis.

The plant has broad, simple leaves which are green with a reddish vein, and tall stalks of white flowers which mature into dark red berries. These berries are often favored by birds, but the entire plant can be very dangerous for mammals. The roots and stalks are especially toxic, but the leaves and berries carry enough toxins to cause severe illness or death. Horses, for example, sometimes get very sick from eating pokeweed which is allowed to grow in their paddocks.

Historically, some cultures in the Americas have eaten the young leaves and stems. If these parts of the plant are boiled in three changes of water to draw out the toxin, their toxicity appears to be relatively low, although some doctors have expressed concerns that people could still get sick. It can also be difficult to differentiate between younger, less toxic parts of the plant, and older sections, which have more toxins.

Applications of pokeweed have been used in the treatment of joint pain, swollen glands, and arthritis, and preparations are also available for internal consumption. These products are marketed as herbal supplements, which means that they avoid the tighter regulations used to monitor the safety of prescription drugs. Preparations designed for consumption have dubious benefits, as demonstrated in scientific studies, and they can be very dangerous. People who wish to take pokeweed should consult a doctor or experienced herbalist to make sure that it is not contraindicated.

These plants tend to like wet, sandy soil. In the case of the ombu plant, a species found in Argentina, pokeweed can achieve very impressive heights, behaving more like a tree than a plant. Ombus are used for shelter and as landmarks on the vast expanse of the Argentine pampas. In areas where pokeweeds are invasive, gardeners should be sure to work with heavy gloves on to protect their hands, as the juices of the plant can cause rashes and discomfort. Pokeweed should also be safely disposed of, ideally in an area where animals and children will not encounter it.

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what actions do you take if pokeweed berries are consumed?

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