Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Pokeweed Is a Good Weed
I always try to leave some space in my yard for pokeweeds that pop up, from seeds sown by the birds. This year I have one by the picnic table, one by the arch that leads into the vegetable garden, and one by the bird feeders next to the Little House. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a terrific wildlife plant—and it’s quite handsome too.
Pokeweed is a native plant, found throughout the eastern United States in pastures, fields, fencerows, vacant lots, and open woods. It's drought tolerant and grows in a variety of soil types, in full sun to part shade.
A big, colorful herbaceous perennial, pokeweed grows anywhere from 4 to 12 feet tall and usually about as wide. It often resembles a small tree. Its large, lance-shaped leaves are bright green, and its smooth, stout stems are magenta or even bright red. In late spring and early summer, tiny greenish white flowers bloom in 4-to-8-inch clusters. In August and September, shiny purple berries ripen, turning so dark they’re almost black.
Pokeweed dies back in winter but returns in spring from its big thick fleshy root. Spring is the time to sample the tender young leaves—if you dare. All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans, but if you boil the young leaves enough times you can eat them (supposedly). They taste kind of like asparagus or spinach, I’ve read, though I’m probably not going to try them since I don't think I'd ever be sure they'd been boiled enough. Juice from the berries makes a nice pink ink (it fades to brown over the years) and a lovely rosy dye for yarn and cloth.
Maybe when I retire I can start raising sheep and spinning my own yarn and dyeing it with pokeberry juice. That’s a nice dream. But right now I’m mostly growing this plant for the critters. Foxes, raccoons, possums, mice, and over 20 species of birds eat the berries, I've read. In our yard, the biggest pokeberry fans seem to be cardinals, mockingbirds, and mourning doves. Last year Rob and I cut down a grand, berry-studded specimen because it was too close to our beloved Rangpur lime. We cut it in September, when the berries were at their most luscious, which was probably not a very kind or thoughtful thing to do. The mockingbird that visited it daily kept coming back and looking for it. We could tell by the way he was fluttering about that he was confused, bereft, lost. We felt terrible.
So yes, wildlife value is the big reason I save room in my yard for pokeweed. But there are other, smaller reasons too. For one thing, pokeweed is just plain pretty, with its flamboyant red stems and jewel-like berries. And for another, it fills me with the most pleasant nostalgia. Pokeweed is a plant that serves, for me, as a sort of magic bridge to the past and my childhood. See, when my sister Kris and I were kids, we always played with pokeweed, even though we knew it was poisonous. We’d dig up the huge taproot and pretend it was a ham. We’d slice it up and serve it to our dolls. We referred to the berries as “grapes” and we’d squeeze them for juice, which our dolls enjoyed in dainty green glasses with gold trim. Next to our fort in the backyard, there was a little table made out of a pine stump covered in oil cloth, and in late summer we’d sit there having ham and grape juice and listening to the cicadas buzz. Maybe it wasn't so smart to fool around all day with a poisonous plant, but it certainly made for some happy memories—memories that come flooding back almost every time I see a pokeweed.