Phytolacca americana L.
Pokeweed, American pokeweed
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.
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 . 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.
Phytolacca americana description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 25 May 2020.
Range: Zones 2-11: