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Weed: Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) also known as poke, polk, pigeonberry, inkweed , poke sallet, Virginia poke, pokeberry, scoke berry, ombu, pigeonberry, ink berry, cancer root, pokebush, pokeroot, wild spinach, American nightshade, and bear's grape.

Description: Pokeweed grows from 3 to 10 feet tall. The hollow stems are reddish-purple. Leaves are lanced-shaped and 5 to 20 inches long, growing alternately on the stem. Branching occurs at the top of the plant. Whitish green flowers are a raceme- long narrow unbranched clusters. The flowers produce purple berries that have 8 to 10 channgers. Fruits are each about 1/4-inch in diameter. As they ripen, they become heavy and droop, giving the appearance of grape clusters.

Where: This weed prefers rich disturbed soils, roadsides, waste places, open woods, fence rows, and edges of woods. It is more of a problem in no-till crop fields.

Propagation: Pokeweed is propagated from seed that is spread by animals that have fed on the berries.

Poisoning: The plant contains several toxins including saponic glycosides. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the biggest concentration is in the roots. Pigs have died from digging and eating the roots.

Historical: The original copy of the Declaration of Independence is said to have been written with ink made from Phytolacca americana, hence the name inkberry. Supposedly, the ink is a beautiful red that turns brown. There are sites on the internet that tell how to make ink from the berries. If making ink, wear plastic gloves as it is possible to absorb some of the toxins from the berries through the skin. There is an old song "Poke Salad Annie," depicting a poor southern girl who picked a wild plant called pokeweed for a vegetable.

In 1845 the supporters of James Polk in his presidential campaign wore pokeweed flowers and leaves in their lapels instead of campaign buttons. Thus it was nicknamed Polk or Polkweed.

What: Many animals feed on the berries without problems including robins, mourning doves, gray catbird, Eastern bluebird, cardinals, some woodpeckers, starlings, cedar waxwings, red foxes, and raccoons.

In spring the young shoots can be harvested and cooked, but it requires knowledge of proper cooking to eliminate the chance of poisoning. Early American settlers ate cooked poke greens as it was one of the first greens available in the spring. The greens are actually high in vitamin A. However, never eat raw leaves. Poke has been canned and sold in the South under the name poke sallet.

Pokeweed antiviral protein PAP has been isolated from the plant. This has tried to inhibit the HIV virus in humans. It is being studied for possible therapeutic use for T-cell leukemia, lymphoma, and Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mary Anna Anderson
Mary Anna Anderson
Nebraska Extension Horticulturist

Mary Anna Anderson served from 1997-2013 as a horticulturist with Nebraska Extension in the Douglas/Sarpy County offices.