Pokeberry: Weed or valuable bird food?

By Pamela Stallsmith, Henrico Master Gardener Intern

What’s that leafy, berry-bearing weed that’s frequently found in yards, pastures, and fields across Virginia?

It’s pokeberry or pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, a native plant that grows from the spring through late fall. It’s also known as American nightshade, common pokeweed, inkberry, and pigeonberry.

The tenacious weed can reach up to 12 feet in height with leaves up to 16 inches in length, according to virginiawildflowers.org. The stems can range from light green to magenta. Small flowers give way in the summer to distinctive berries that “ripen to such a dark shade of purple that they almost appear black.”

The name of the weed derives from an Indian word “pokan,” which means any plant used to produce a red or yellow dye, according to Gerald Klingaman, a retired extension horticulturist at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. It even has a political connection: Leaves of pokeberry were worn on the lapels of supporters of the first dark-horse candidate for president, James Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849.

Be careful around the plant. Though the fruits have been used in traditional medicine and pies, take heed. “New leaves and roots, along with the berries, should not be eaten because they are toxic,” the Penn State extension office warns. Ingesting the berries can cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, among other ailments. Wash your hands after touching.

The weed can be pesky. If gardeners wish to remove the weed manually, they need to dig deeply and take out the entire taproot. Pulling doesn’t work as it leaves behind roots that will regenerate. If nothing else, make sure to remove the fruits from the plant before they spread. The weed can produce up to 48,000 seeds, which can remain viable in the soil for 40 years, according to gardeningknowhow.com.

Birds help spread the seeds by planting them through excretions. However, the fruits are an important food source — especially for mockingbirds, northern cardinals and mourning doves. So while pokeberry might be a nuisance for gardeners, it’s nutrition for our feathered friends.