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Pokeweed: Responsible for Most Plant Poisoning Cases in the US

An ornamental, a weed, a salad ingredient, and a very toxic plant. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has many different reputations.

When fruiting, pokeweed produces an abundance of ornamental berry clusters with bright magenta stalks. It’s an attractive plant, but it’s also very toxic…

Some plant parts can be eaten, but only when correctly, and very carefully prepared. Pokeweed is responsible for the majority of plant poisoning cases in the US. Because of its edibility possibility, many people eat it without knowing of its lethal potential, or without knowing how to properly prepare it.

Their berry clusters can be mistaken for wild grapes by children and inexperienced foragers, so they are often mentioned as a poisonous lookalike in foraging information for wild grapes.

A close up of pokeweed berries and their bright pink stem
Pokeweed berries from Knoxville TN, USA | Photo by Bob Richmond

What Are The Active Compounds in Pokeweed?

Pokeweed contains a heady cocktail of toxins including a selection of saponins and poisonous alkaloids and resins. The toxin with the most severe effect is phytolaccine which is a toxic alkaloid.

The roots hold the highest concentration of these toxins, however, the entire plant is toxic, including stems, berries, leaves, and flowers. It also becomes increasingly more toxic with age as toxin levels build.

Close up of a cluster of green, pink, red and finally dark purple pokeweed berries.
A cluster of pokeweed berries at various growth stages and colors | Photo by Tubifex on Wikimedia Commons

Pokeweed Poisoning Symptoms

Phytolaccine is a toxin that can cause extreme abdominal discomfort. Eating 1-3 berries is enough to cause vomiting, convulsions, diarrhea, respiratory failure, and even death.

If pruning or removing pokeweed, care should be taken to avoid getting sap on the skin as it can also cause dermatitis. Even getting berry juice on the hands can cause skin irritation.

Notable Pokeweed Poisonings

In the 1800s pokeweed poisonings were common as European settlers attempted to create dishes and medicines with incorrectly prepared pokeweed. The juicy berries can be particularly attractive to children, and there have sadly been a number of fatalities.

Cultural Symbolism of Pokeweed

A black and white photo of a lady sorting the shoots of pokeweed and adding them to a bowl on a wooden table.
African American woman, the wife of a sharecropper, preparing “poke-salad.” | shared by Russell Lee on Wikimedia Commons

Many people have accidentally poisoned themselves and others while creating a springtime dish known as ‘poke sallet’ or poke salad. It’s a traditional dish in many areas of southern America that involves a lot of careful preparation. Young shoots on a young plant are boiled up to three times with refreshed water to remove the toxins.

Pokeweed was a free and readily available ingredient that could be foraged in early spring when other greens hadn’t sprouted. Over time, it become a traditional dish that linked people back to the hardships of generations past.

Because of its poisonous nature, farmers and pet owners will try to remove it from their land as it’s toxic to livestock, horses, and dogs.

What is the Medicinal Potential of Pokeweed?

Because of its potent toxicity, it’s unusual for such a toxic plant to become a popular dish. However, it became a popular plant not just for its availability and edibility, but also for its medicinal potential. Pokeweed greens were considered a tonic that could rid the body of worms, which was a common problem in colonial America.

Native Americans had already discovered the medicinal potential of pokeweed. They treated skin conditions and other physical ailments with poultices from the roots and leaves.

Today, research projects have shown that some compounds in pokeweed may have a role to play in treating some cancers and even HIV.

What Does Pokeweed Look Like?

Pokeweed is a perennial and herbaceous plant (it lacks a woody stem). Without surrounding competition or maintenance it can reach heights of 15ft, but generally, plants are about 4-8ft on average.

The leaves are simple, pointed ovals, but the most recognizable feature is the berry clusters. The deep purple, almost black, berries hang from bright pink stalks in clusters not too dissimilar from a bunch of grapes.

A stem with a cluster of pokeweed berries and several leaves. The background shows a woodland in late autumn.
Pokeweed growing in woodland in Austria | Photo by Stefan.lefnaer on Wikimedia Commons

Where Does Pokeweed Grow?

The Phytolacca americana species was originally native to the southeastern states of the US, but it has since spread to other countries, particularly Japan. 

The seeds remain viable for many years and are spread prolifically by hungry songbirds who eat the berries. You might discover a pokeweed plant along field edges, in areas of disturbed soil, woodlands, or even growing in your garden.

A close up of a bright pink pokeweed stalk with a cluster of developing purple berries (that are shaped like small pumpkins), and 3 tiny bright pink flowers.
Developing Pokeweed berries | Photo by Hüseyin Cahid Doğan on Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

Pokeweed may be poisonous, but like foxglove and castor bean, it holds fascinating medicinal potential too. While pokeweed salad may be a popular traditional dish, it is generally not recommended to try this at home due to the extreme risk.

Featured Image by AnRo0002 on Wikimedia Commons

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