Poking back at pokeweed

Pokeweed berries                                                                            IIona L/Flickr

Pokeweed berries                                                                            IIona L/Flickr

Some plants get up to mischief as soon as your back is turned. I’ve been hiding inside during the blistering heat and endless rain, and so haven’t been keeping as close an eye out as usual.

Welcoming cooler temperatures, I set out to make a close survey of the grounds. It wasn’t in the garden or on the patio that things has gone awry. It was out along my gravel parking area where a wayward green giant had overrun a stretch of juniper hedge. I do mean in the sense that those thick and sturdy evergreens were no longer visible.

As I closed in to investigate, I noticed long, dangling strings of deep purple berries hanging like oversized earrings from every other branch of this pushy invader. Pokeweed strikes again!

These native plants grow like many tree saplings that spring up on their own in out-of-the-way places. One moment they are insignificant little nothings. The next time you look, they tower overhead and have grown roots that reach halfway to China.

Surely this pokeweed had been stealthily gaining size there in the middle of the hedge, but it only lately made its dramatic push for supremacy. I would conservatively estimate its size as 8 feet tall and wide — nice work for a single season.

I am actually fond of this wacky plant, and I often leave pokeweeds alone if they are growing along the woodland verges or some other harmless place. Birds eat their poisonous berries, suffering no harm, and eject the seeds near their favorite roosts — roosts like the one they must have had in the juniper’s depths.

Since a shaded evergreen is an evergreen that will inevitably suffer dieback, my errant pokeweed had to go. Although the thing was the size of a small tree, its purplish stems are hollow and easily severed with a pair of lopping shears. It didn’t take much to reduce it to a large pile of debris.

If you need to tackle a pokeweed, it's not a bad idea to wear gloves, since all parts of the plant are poisonous. The thick, carrot-like taproot is the most toxic portion.

A single season's growth, 8 ft. x 8 ft.                 NY State IPM Program

A single season's growth, 8 ft. x 8 ft.                 NY State IPM Program

Perversely, pokeweed has had a long and colorful history among Native Americans, early settlers and Southern cooks as edible "poke salat" and in various medicinal concoctions. The caveat is that only young, spring leaves are collected for the table and these must be boiled thrice, with the cooking water discarded each time, to remove the toxins.

You have to be pretty hungry to go for this dish, in my opinion, but it was celebrated in the Tony Joe White tune "Polk Salad Annie," which had its 15 minutes of fame in the late 1960s when the song was covered by that good ol' Southern boy, Elvis Presley.

In another historical footnote, the leaves of pokeweed (known alternately as polkweed) were worn on the lapels of supporters backing the first dark-horse candidate for president, James Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849. Some of the more gullible Polk fans believed that the plant was named for their man.

I’ve seen claims that the original Declaration of Independence was written in fermented pokeberry juice, but I can’t confirm this. The crushed berries do make a nice, rich dye or ink, and the plant's common names include inkberry, inkweed and red-ink plant. Historians say that Civil War soldiers routinely dipped their turkey quill pens in pokeberry ink; some of these letters survive, as legible as the day they were written.

Pokeweed was said at one time or another to cure joint pain, pinkeye, skin rashes, headache, syphilis, pimples and cancer, some of which sounds purely fanciful. But now I've learned that certain anti-viral proteins in the plant are being tested in modern laboratories as cures for childhood leukemia, HIV and certain cancers — so you never know.

Our native pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is seriously outclassed by heavyweight relatives in the southern latitudes. The ombu tree of the Argentine pampas (Phytolacca dioica) grows to 60 feet or more with an immense base resembling the buttressed trunk of the banyan. Also in the family is a Mexican vine that grows from a boulder-sized tuber and a Caribbean vine that trails along the jungle floor like a woody boa constrictor, ascending into trees where it forms "tangled masses of writhing serpentine branches," according to one author.

Compared to these, our pokeweed seems like a mere bagatelle, for which I, the pruning shear-wielder, am profoundly grateful. I saw, I lopped, I conquered -- and that was that.