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Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana L.

 

Pokeweed, American Pokeweed

KingdomPlantaePlants, but not fungi, lichens, or algae
SubkingdomTracheobiontaVascular plants—plants with a “circulatory system” for delivering water and nutrients
DivisionMagnoliophytaFlowering plants, also known as angiosperms
ClassMagnoliopsidaDicotyledons—plants with two initial seed leaves
SubclassCaryophyllidaeCacti, many other succulents, carnivorous plants, and leadworts
OrderCaryophyllalesIncludes cacti, carnations, amaranths, ice plants, and many carnivorous plants
FamilyPhytolaccaceaePokeweed family
GenusPhytolaccaFrom Greek phyton, “plant,” and Latin lacca, “crimson lake,” a reference to berry color in some members of this genus
SpeciesamericanaFound in America

About plant names...

Pokeweed is native to the eastern United States, and quite common. It is also found in North Africa, China, southern Europe, the Azores, and the Sandwich Islands. Pokeweed prefers damp, rich soils, including disturbed areas, pas­tures, clearings, thickets, woodland borders, and roadsides. Edmund Preston (1884) discovered the peculiar and little-known property of phytolacca leaves to emit, in autumn, a bluish or yellowish-green phosphorescent light, for several hours after dark. Prof. Ed. Schär found the phenomenon to be due to an oxydizing enzyme, which he isolated (see Jahresb. der Pharm., 1896, p. 534).

Plants: Fast-growing, reaching 6½' (2 m) in height (rarely up to 9½' (3 m)). Stems are green, bright red, or purple-tinged, and round, smooth, and hairless.

Leaves: Simple, alternate, and entire, on petioles (stems) ½-1" (1.3-2.5 cm) in length. They are light or yellow green in color. They are lanceolate to ovate in shape.

Flowers: Diminutive, less than ¼" (6.3 mm) around, with five white or pink-to-red petals around a green center. They appear in racemes up to 6" (15 cm) long.

Fruits: Fruits are dark purple to black, and look rather tempting, a source of poisoning, especially to children. They occur in large clusters. Each fruit is ⅛-⅜" (6-11 mm), a slightly squashed sphere, a bit like an inner tube.

Edibility: Poisonous Skull & Crossbones. All parts of the plant are poisonous, including the roots and the berries, principally due to the presence of saponins and lectins. They are especially dangerous to children and pregnant women. Toxins may be absorbed through the skin (or perhaps only through any breaks in the skin—accounts vary), so be careful about handling. Ingestion leads, after about two hours, to violent vomiting, spasms, and sometimes convulsions. Death can occur as a result of respiratory paralysis. Other mammals, including farm animals, are also poisoned by pokeweed, though birds are immune.

Experienced foragers eat the very young leaves and shoots, harvesting them before they become highly toxic and boiling them to break down lectins. Expert forager Samuel Thayer explains that the young, fast-growing mertistem, while still pliable and easily broken, is safe if blanched for five minutes, then cooked. I’m not sure I feel confident enough to try it myself. I will, however, try to catch it in the act of phosphorescing.

Online References:

Phytolacca americana on illinoiswildflowers.info

Phytolacca americana on Wikipedia

Phytolacca americana on the New England Wildflower Society’s GoBotany site

Phytolacca americana on Plants for a Future, a resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants

Phytolacca americana on nadiasyard.com

Phytolacca americana on henriettes-herb.com

References:

Clemants, Steven; Gracie, Carol, Wildflowers in the Field and Forest, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 284

Multiple Authors, PDR for Herbal Medicines, Thomson Healthcare Inc., 2007, p. 660

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

7/7/2012 · Gibbet Hill, Groton, MA
≈ 4½ × 3" (11 × 7.9 cm)

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

7/7/2012 · Gibbet Hill, Groton, MA
≈ 7 × 4½" (17 × 11 cm)

Phytolacca americana description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 21 Jun 2017.

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Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

8/22/2012 · Squanacook River Wildlife Area, Townsend, MA
≈ 4½ × 7" (11 × 17 cm)

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

8/22/2012
≈ 9 × 6" (22 × 14 cm)

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

8/4/2009 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 5 × 4½" (12 × 11 cm)

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

10/23/2009 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 3 × 4½" (7.9 × 11 cm)

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

8/4/2007 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA

Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed, American Pokeweed)

8/22/2012 · Squanacook River Wildlife Area, Townsend, MA
≈ 8 × 5" (19 × 13 cm)

Range: Zones 2-11:

About this map...