Recently we received a plant identification question from S.B. of North Barrington. A plant that was new to her had shown up in her woods. She sent this photo, and I identified the plant as Phytolacca americana, pokeweed.
It is a weedy native species that shows up in disturbed, moist woods. She had mentioned removing buckthorn, so pokeweed found a place to germinate. It likes damp thickets, clearings, roadsides. I suggested she leave it alone, that it may disappear when we have a dry year. Swink and Wilhelm state, “It is rarely abundant enough to be a pest, …it is always found in disturbed habitats.”
Birds like it, and it is preferable to buckthorn or garlic mustard. I suggested she consider it a “place holder” for more conservative native species. In the meantime southerners sometimes use young shoots as food. The plant is highly poisonous once it has gained its mature red color.
That might have been the end of it, but S.B.’s curiosity sent her to do some research that I found interesting. S.B. wrote, “Plant feels very rural Americana….Think I will leave most of them alone as food for the birds, and I like the idea of ‘place holder.’ Will pass on making a ‘poke salad’ for myself!”
S. B. continued that apparently the dye from the berries is used to coat solar cells. There is a site on the internet that explains how to make your own dye and indicates that the Declaration of Independence was signed with poke ink! Research might show this is true or not, but as S.B. indicates, these “factoids make for interesting conversations.”