American Pokeweed: Bane or Beauty?

There’s an American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) growing across the alley from our house. It emerged from an overgrown hedge this year that our new neighbors have cut to the ground.

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An American Pokeweed growing in the alley behind our house.

Pokeweed is usually thought of as an aggressive, poisonous weed. The roots, stems, and seeds are particularly toxic. The leaves and berries are also poisonous, but less so. Nevertheless, some people eat the young green leaves and have even made pies from the berries.

pokeweed2
Pokeweed berries.

Many birds love American Pokeweed fruit, so you could argue that it’s a good wildlife plant.  Some 30 species eat the purple berries that ripen in fall, including bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, catbirds, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and white-throated sparrows.

Those birds spread the seeds far and wide, which is why I’ve been seeing Pokeweed seedlings emerging lately in our own garden. The seedlings are not difficult to remove if you get them while they are small, but I wouldn’t handle them without gloves.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is that some people consider Pokeweed to be a garden-worthy ornamental. In fact, there are even Pokeweed cultivars. This I learned from the very entertaining and informative garden blog, Sorta Like Suburbia.

frank pokeweed
Photo from Sorta Like Suburbia (katob427.com)

Here’s a picture that Frank (author of Sorta Like) posted of a Pokeweed variety called ‘Sunny-Side Up’. I’ve got to admit that those golden leaves are downright stunning combined with the purple berries.

So I’ve thought about allowing one or two seedlings to take root and grow in our back garden. Only thing is, the straight species can look pretty awkward, with a downright gangly habit.

Actually, I thought about approaching the neighbors with the suggestion that they cut their Pokeweed to the ground, but I decided not to be a buttinsky. On the other hand, Frank relates how he successfully mollified one concerned neighbor with a free beer – maybe I would get the same reward.

If you’re interested in purchasing American Pokeweed, Plant Delights Nursery has 2 varieties for sale, including ‘Sunny-Side Up’. However, I think that I will hold off, at least for now. Judy is not a big fan of the idea.

Have you ever grown (deliberately) Pokeweed in your garden? If not, would you consider it?

65 Comments on “American Pokeweed: Bane or Beauty?

  1. I have a love-hate relationship with this plant. I appreciate it in the forest preserves when it attracts wildlife. But for years I have yanked it out of my yard (which one has to do early or else it’s a struggle). This year, for the heck of it, since a lot of what was going on in my yard this year was dictated by the plants and their response to all the early rain, I let a couple grow in two different spots. But I can’t say that the berries were much appreciated. Now of course they have been frozen – but that might be a thing for a robin passing by. Guess I’ll see how I feel again next year.

  2. I love pokeweed, which we have in abundance in our meadows and woods. In the spring, we harvest the young tops and boil them for poke sallet. One pokeweed has “poked” up in my native pollinator garden, and I decided to leave it as it is good company for my other cultivated weeds: Joe Pye Weed, Ironweed, and numerous varieties of Milkweed.

    I wrote about Poke here:
    http://farmdover.blogspot.com/2016/05/poking-around-farm.html

    And about my pollinator garden here.
    http://farmdover.blogspot.com/2019/09/garden-glory.html

    I love reading about your garden,
    All the best,
    Debbie from Shelbyville, KY

    • I do grow Joe Pye and several Milkweeds, but I’ve shied away from Pokeweed. Never considered it ornamental until now and the toxicity makes me nervous.

  3. Not a fan! The colors are beautiful, but the plant gets too big too fast, and I read that the seeds are viable in the ground for 40 years. Pokeweed and poison ivy are my two least favorite, but most frequent, garden finds, here in NW Indiana.

    • I am super sensitive to poison ivy, seems like a break out if I just walk past it. Glad we don’t have it growing in our garden – yet.

  4. I can’t believe it. I spent most of the summer trying to find some pokeweed to photograph, and finally found a tiny bit down on Galveston Island. I know it’s around, but I haven’t come across it. I’m not sure I’d put it in a garden, but if I had a plot of land where I could let natives run free, I’d be glad to include it. In the few times I’ve found it in the past, it’s been clear that something finds the berries palatable — there weren’t more than one or two left.

      • I believe that exposure to heavy frost make the difference, being that frost eliminates toxicity and the birds then find them palatable. Of course, dosage is important too!

      • Pokeweed is killed by even a light frost, which also shrivels the berries. Birds eat them well before that. Poke berries were a mainstay of the passenger pigeon, great flocks of which used to spread the seeds. Birds have a completely different digestive system than mammals, one that allows them to eat berries and bugs that would sicken people.

  5. Well I guess my poke-love has been exposed! Oddly enough I have trouble getting pokeweed to grow on purpose, but when it seeds in to where it wants to grow then it’s carefree… aka weedy? Usually it’s only a pest under the trees and bushes where the birds hang out. Like you said, you do need to get them small. I swear all they do their first few weeks of life is grow a huge taproot.

  6. I have them in my garden. I don’t let too many grow but like one or two for the birds.

  7. I don’t think we have it in the UK, it certainly sounds as though the wildlife benefits from it, but I don’t know if I would allow it in the garden, the gold leaved one looks lovely though.

  8. I think not. In my small garden, this would take over in about five minutes. However, if rabbits hate it, I’d reconsider.

  9. No, I don’t much like it. We do see it here occasionally, it mysteriously appeared in my garden a few years ago. I got rid of it before it could seed around.

  10. In answer to your title question, both! I, too, have across the alley poke weed and the birds “plant” it with wild abandon in my yard. God help you if a seedling escapes notice until late in the summer! So, no, I don’t think I’d grow it intentionally. The sunny side up is beautiful but I’m not tempted at all. If you decide to try it, I’ll happily admire it when you post it. Go Jason!

  11. It is a lovely plant, but from your description, I gather it’s very, ahem, hardy. As far as I know, pokeweed is not a problem in central Maine.

  12. I’ve never grown it, but I think that in the big picture, I like it. It’s a great plant for a wildscape, but it would require some wrangling. Great shots!!

  13. My father’s people were from Appalachia. When I was growing up, my family ate the very young shoots in spring. I was told that is the only part of the plant that is edible.

  14. I have quite a few volunteers in my yard. I let them grow unless they are in the way, hack them down in the fall but they come back one way or another. Bluebirds that won’t accept my offers of housing come to eat the fruit once it’s ripe.

  15. I like to take photos of pokeweed in its various stages of growth and I see it evrywhere in the wild. I’ve handled it many times without gloves and have never had a problem.
    If you want a real surprise take a look at the back of one of the berries.

  16. I love pokewed, but haven’t actually incorporated into our garden plantings, as it’s a bit challenging design-wise. But I’ve seen it in Europe nicely incorporated, so why not here?

  17. I think it is gorgeous and tried once to grow it. it didn’t survive my harsh Quebec winters, so no luck.

  18. Hard to resist leaving one or two in the wilder rear garden; they’re so gorgeous in late September with the low light coming through the purple leaves… Great frost indicators, too: One morning the leaves are limp and withered, even if everything else looks unscathed.

    Personally, I don’t think ‘Sunny Side Up’ is an improvement over the species, and the idea of paying for a pokeweed makes me chuckle. But it’s a big old world…

    • Point taken, though people pay for all kinds of plants that are robust in the extreme – I’m amazed whenever I see people buying mint.

  19. I’ve always chopped it down. This year a persistent one came up in the “right” spot and I let it live. Back-lit by the sun, tucked in by an Alberta Spruce and Russian Sage, it was very nice. The berries were also a vivid purple accent. I’ve never grown it purposely but if it comes up in the right spot live with the serendipity.

  20. There are always a few Pokeweed growing here and there. They come up in fence rows and brush piles. This year a plant came up by the lagoonand grew very HUGE. I think they are pretty neat so I usually leave them alone unless they are in the way. I didn’t know there were actually cultivars with lime green leaves until I saw one listed with Pant Delights a few years ago. While that would be neat, I think I am not all that anxious to pay money for Pokeweed. Thanks for sharing!

  21. I have always put pokeweed into the BOMGE (Bane of My Gardening Existence) category, although admittedly below such nemeses as poison ivy, wild garlic, wild blackberry, bittersweet, crabgrass, and the horticultural insanity that is Houttonyia cordata. But it’s on the BOMGE List. Definitely. The yellow (only the newest leaves are yellow, correct? the older ones turn green?) cultivar is interesting but I’d still be a little afraid of it, LOL. Kind of like the sumac called ‘Bailtiger’ … turn your back on it for an instant and it might decide to suck(er) up half the yard….

    • I’ve no idea if the cultivar is any less aggressive than the straight species. Probably wise to be cautious. There’s another compact sumac cultivar called ‘Tiger Eyes’ that is also very aggressive.

  22. I saw this plant in Portugal in an abandoned lot and did not know what it was. It is very ornamental in it’s weediness.

  23. We both have pokeweed on our minds! I’ve been saving up pics for another in my occasional odes to pokeweed. 🙂 One thing I like to point out is that lots of plants aren’t good for us or our pets to eat. I think this one has a bad rep in that regard because it looks so enticing to kids. I didn’t realize there were cultivars either until I saw one in a garden in NY. And when my husband went to Germany in August, he visited the botanic garden next to his hotel, rounded the first corner, and there in front of him was a giant, proudly labeled specimen of American pokeweed!

    • Once again, the Europeans are first to appreciate our wildflowers as ornamentals. The thing about kids eating the berries does concern me, though the berries are so high up it would be hard for kids to reach them.

  24. Please don’t be casual about the toxicity of pokeweed! All parts are poisonous; even the tender first leaves that were a spring “sallet” for earlier generations were cooked in boiling water first, to leach away the toxins. Wash your hands after handling the plant, and teach children to look, not touch or taste it.

  25. I do let it grow in a few places. I think it looks like a dinosaur era plant which makes me smile, for whatever reason. Plus the birds really like the berries.

    I treat it with respect – handling it only with gloves. (Just like datura!)

  26. BANE!
    It is not native here, but somehow came in just a few years ago. It is everywhere now. I don’t care if the shoots are edible. There are plenty of better and less risky vegetables to grow in much less space. A few years back, I fermented the juice from the berries for ink. I got ‘only’ about half a gallon. That may not seem like much, but an ounce last for MANY years of regularly writing! (I used to write letters daily.)

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