Pokeweed is a large herbaceous plant that resembles a small tree at maturity. It is poisonous to human beings and to livestock.

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     The scientific name of pokeweed is Phytolacca americana. It belongs to the plant family Phytolaccaceae, also known as the pokeweed family. Most members of this family are tropical or subtropical plants, but pokeweed grows as far north as Ontario and Quebec.

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A Herbaceous Plant

     Pokeweed is an herbaceous plant. This means that it does not have a woody texture, like an oak tree or a lilac bush. Instead, it has a fleshy composition, like the cabbage plant.

    However, it is a fairly large herb. The mature plant resembles a small tree. A large taproot supports a long sturdy stem that may reach a length of nine or ten feet and becomes well branched at maturity. The mature stem assumes a reddish purple color.

     The leaves can grow up to a foot long, but may be considerably shorter. Each leaf is attached to the stem by a short petiole. It is ovate in form, sometimes lanceolate or elliptical, and tapers to a point at each end. It has a smooth margin without any indentations or lobes.

A Perennial Plant

     Pokeweed is a perennial plant. In contrast to annuals, which live one year, and biennials, which have a two-year life cycle, perennials live for several years. The exact life span of a perennial varies with the individual species and with the conditions to which it is subjected.


     The inflorescence or flower cluster is a raceme, in which little flowers are attached to the main flower stem by little stalks called pedicels. The pokeweed flowers are attached one by one along the length of the terminal portion of the flower stem. These flowers do not form a straight line, but are arranged around the stem in such a way that the flower cluster has a roughly cylindrical appearance. (See the pictures above.)

     The flowers have five sepals apiece. Pokeweed has no petals; the sepals are the attractive part of the pokeweed flower.

     Pokeweed has ten stamens, and its ovary has ten compartments called carpels. The mature fruit looks like a purple berry, though some sources call it a pome.

A Poisonous Plant

     The mature pokeweed plant is poisonous to cows, horses, pigs, and human beings. Pigs are most likely to suffer because they like to dig up the poisonous roots and eat them. A cow will not eat the unpalatable leaves unless it is very hungry. A child might be inclined to think that the poisonous berry-like fruit is good to eat. However, birds are not affected by the poison and eat the fruit with relish. Raccoons and opossums also eat the fruit without suffering harm.

Food for the Daring

     Some have ventured to eat the tender pokeweed shoots. It is perfectly safe if properly prepared, but there is no reason to eat pokeweed when so many perfectly edible herbs grow in the world.

     For safe consumption, it is necessary to boil young pokeweed shoots, discard the water used for the initial boiling, and then boil the shoots once more in new water.


     The juice of the pokeweed berry makes a reddish ink. It also dyes cloth, but there is no way to fix the dye, so the color fades quickly.

     Pokeweed leaves are an effective cathartic, and various parts of the plant have been used in folk medicine.


Wikipedia: Phytolacca americana


Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences: Pokeweed


Equus Caballus: Deadly Poke Sallet


Illinois Wildflowers: Pokeweed


Missouri Plants: Phytolacca americana L.


Fairfax County Public Schools: Pokeweed


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