Don's Jersey Birding: Weird and Wild Pokeweed

Some people eat the leaves of the young pokeweed plant, but you have to know what you are doing because the plant is very toxic.
Photo courtesy of Don Torino

According to the 1969 hit song by Tony Joe White “Poke Salad Annie”, Annie would go down to the truck patch and pick a mess of poke salad. Unfortunately, later in the song a gator eats her Granny. Despite Granny’s bad luck, Pokeweed is an amazing native plant that is important food source for our birds and should have a place in our Backyard Wildlife Habitats.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) also known as Pokeberry, Pokeroot, and Pigeon Berry is an herb, native to New Jersey. It grows just about anywhere, from waste areas, to any backyard that has birds passing through it. It is a good bet that if you walked out to your backyard or took a stroll around the corner, you will find some Pokeweed growing around something in your neighborhood. I first thought it got its name Pokeweed because it pokes its head everywhere in my backyard; between my milkweeds, in my honeysuckle you name it. But it is okay with me and especially okay with many bird species.

Over 60 bird species are attracted to the berries of the pokeweed plant.
Photo Credit: AOL

Pokeweed, gets its name from the Virginia Indian word for the plant "pokon". “Pokon” was derived from the Indian word "pak" which means blood. Pokeweed has an amazing history and folk lore connected to it. Native Americans used it as treatment for everything from joint pain to skin problems. It is said that the juice from the pokeberry was used for the ink to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Today the plant is used in research as a possible cure for leukemia, an anti-HIV drug, and just like Poke Salad Annie, it is still eaten like a vegetable especially in the deep south. Some of my friends still remember being sent out by their parents to pick some pokeweed. However, all parts of the plant are toxic and should only be prepared properly by those who have experience doing so.

All that being said, lets talk about the most important reason not to cut down those strange looking weeds in your yard.  Pokeweed is one of the best plants for attracting birds. The beautiful, but toxic purple berries, are eaten by at least 60 different species of birds. This includes Cedar Waxwings, many Warbler species, Mockingbirds, Woodpeckers, Thrushes, and Grosbeaks. Pokeweed comes up every year in multiple places in my backyard each spring. The berries disappear as fast as they ripen. The Catbirds and Cardinals seem to try to be the first birds to treat themselves to this backyard delicacy.

Pokeweed comes up everywhere in my yard, even in the middle of my honeysuckle.
Photo courtesy of Don Torino

Pokeweed is an herbaceous plant that grows from 1 to 10 ft tall.  Leaves are single alternate, pointed at the end and crinkled. The flowers are white in clusters at the end of branches, which later develop into purple berries in late summer. You won’t have to look for this plant at a nursery because the birds will be happy to donate the seeds after they pass through their system. The berries are poisonous to humans but are harmless to the birds.  The seeds, which can lay dormant in the soil for a century or more, may begin to germinate when you turn the soil for a new garden.

Some experts advise that this plant should not be touched or eaten by humans. Although they say that more research needs to be done, it is possible that toxins can be taken in through the skin. If that was the case, I should have passed away about 50 years ago. Obviously, there are a lot of myths and folklore attached to the story of Pokeweed but it is always better to be cautious. I would advise not keeping this plant in your yard with small children and pets that may consume it. If you happen to be pregnant, you should get someone else to remove it.  

Pokeweed has an important place in the wild and the backyard habitat. So, help the wildlife in your neighborhood and let the Pokeweed grow. Then count the birds that visit your backyard to feast on this strange but wonderful native plant. Just keep an eye out for your Granny and the gators though!

Don Torino is the President of Bergen County Audubon Society.

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  • 7/31/2012 7:01 PM david wrote:
    I have heard the " old black maids" (and I loved every one of them like a mom)talk about " gettin' a mess of poke" Bear in mind I am 69 1/2, white, and from Louisiana. These days it is not as much fun. New generations have forgotten..." Love the one you're with". Anyway, back to the poke weed..It is magnificent now at the end of summer and it brings out the birds you would not belive..and I live in a residential area..not a farm. Have you tried luring bluebirds.. but your houses never get occupied..Food is not the answer..a cleaned out house!!!..A full and clean birdbath and in fall and winter any kind of suet. I had 3 (three) nestings in July and cleaned out the nest after each (ants) Nice to give my two cents
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  • 9/6/2012 2:32 PM Simi wrote:
    Thanks for this post, finally I know what the shrubs, that grew super big while I was gone, are; I was sure the berries were toxic but I saved the clusters and will hang them for the birds, unfortunaly I had to take it down since they were in place they aren't supposed to be but otherwise interesting looking plant; looked up strange purple berries and found it, lol.
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