Pokeweed is considered an invasive species when growing outside of the eastern half of North America, to which it is native. It is an easy plant to identify, especially when its berries ripen to their characteristic purple color in late summer. Even earlier in the season, its immense size compared to other perennial weeds is helpful in identification. If you do not have concerns about its invasiveness, it may still be wise to remove pokeweed if children or pets will be in the yard: It is toxic to both of them.
The berries, leaves, and roots of pokeweed are all toxic. Although the young leaves have traditionally been cooked and eaten (thus the common name, "pokesalad"), only the experienced should try this; leaves not properly prepared are toxic. In addition to being toxic to humans, pokeweed is also toxic to pets.
While pokeweed does die back to ground level every winter, it is a difficult weed to get rid of. Winter kills off only the above-ground growth. The plant remains viable at root level and comes back every spring. Find out what you have to do to remove pokeweed successfully.
|Common Names||Pokeweed, common poke, pokesalad (poke sallet), pokeberry, American pokeweed, inkberry, pigeonberry, scoke|
|Botanical Name||Phytolacca americana|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial (considered a shrub by some because of its size)|
|Mature Size||2 to 10 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide|
|Soil type||Prefers a moist, fertile loam|
|Bloom Time||Early summer|
|Hardiness Zones||4 to 8 (United States)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America from Ontario to Florida, midwestern United States|
Pokeweed is currently on the invasive species list of only one state (California), but its presence has been reported in other western U.S. states. It can be considered potentially invasive throughout much of the western United States, especially the Pacific Northwest, where the moist climate is conducive to the spread of the plant. It is also listed as an invasive plant in Japan.
Pokeweed is most closely associated with the American southeast but occurs as a native throughout the eastern half of North America (including the Midwest). It can also be found outside of its native range on the West Coast and in Arizona and New Mexico. Its range cuts across a number of USDA hardiness zones (from 3 to 10).
While pokeweed thrives in fertile soil that remains evenly moist, it is tolerant of a wide range of conditions. It survives in full sun or partial sun and soil of average fertility; it even tolerates some drought. The main thing it needs is good drainage. Because of its flexibility, it can be found not only in the wild, but also in people's backyards. It occurs in fields and pastures, but also in open woods and thickets. It will grow almost anywhere the ground has been disturbed, including along roads.
Pokeweed displaces native species when it grows outside its native range — the very definition of invasive. Pokeweed spreads by seed. It spreads quickly by seed due to the impact of wild birds feeding on it. Birds, immune to the toxin in pokeweed, eat the berries and spread the seed as it passes through their systems.
Avoid planting pokeweed in your yard (and do not allow pokeweed that has spread on its own to your property to remain) if children will be playing in your yard and/or dogs or cats will be let loose on your property. The toxicity of the plant makes it potentially undesirable even in cases where invasiveness is not an issue.
What Does Pokeweed Look Like?
Except for its racemes of ripened berries, which dangle down toward the ground, pokeweed has an upright habit. These racemes can be quite large (up to 8 inches long). The berries start out green but mature to a striking dark purple. Pokeweed stands taller than most weeds, at 2 to 10 feet. When all of these characteristics are taken together, they make for a showy plant.
Pokeweed's height is usually greater than its width. It has numerous stems. These stems are smooth, thick, and mature to a purplish color. The green, egg-shaped leaves are alternate, simple, have entire leaf margins, and emit a foul odor if bruised. The unremarkable flowers are greenish-white and begin blooming in early summer.
How to Get Rid of Pokeweed
Pokeweed is deceptively tenacious because of its herbaceous nature. What we do not realize is the reservoir of strength it holds underground. It has a thick, large taproot from which it emerges each spring. Because of this taproot, hand-pulling is not an effective method of removal: The part of the plant that you are pulling tends to break off from the taproot, from which re-sprouting will occur. If you still wish to stick with manual removal, dig the plant out (roots and all) with a shovel.
Digging the plant out will be the preferred method for those who are in good health and who garden organically. But some people do not mind using chemical herbicides. Others may not be in good enough health for digging (especially if the weed is growing in rocky and/or compacted soil). If you fall into either of these camps, you may prefer to remove pokeweed by using a weed killer.
It is easy to get rid of pokeweed permanently by spraying the leaves with a glyphosate-based solution. It is not a solution without issues, though. Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide. That means it harms almost all vegetation that it comes into contact with. Be careful not to get any on the plants that you want to keep.
Possible health issues regarding the use of glyphosate make it imperative that you protect yourself while spraying by wearing gloves, goggles, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, etc.
Timing is important. Do not spray glyphosate solutions on a windy day: You want to be able to hit your target (the leaves) and nothing else. Spray pokeweed when it is actively growing (summer or early fall). Avoid spraying when rain is in the forecast, since the rain would wash the herbicide off the leaves prematurely. Glyphosate works best when vegetation has been coated with it and then strong sunshine strikes that vegetation for several hours.
You may have to spray the pokeweed more than once to remove it permanently.
Can pokeweed be grown in pots?
Yes. Because some people regard pokeweed as highly ornamental, one option is to grow it in a container. The container could be located on a deck, for example. However, growing pokeweed in a pot outdoors will not prevent it from spreading, since wild birds will still be able to access it, eat the berries, and spread the seeds.
What are non-invasive alternatives to pokeweed?
Since the chief ornamental features of pokeweed are its height and its berries, the best substitutions will be shrubs with colorful berries. For a shrub with purple berries (although they are light purple rather than the dark purple of pokeweed's berries), grow beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). An option with darker berries is elderberry (Sambucus).
What are some characteristics of pokeweed?
The two most intriguing characteristics of pokeweed are its fast growth rate and its unusual berries. Its fast growth rate is a given considering that, despite dying down to ground level in winter, it is able to achieve a height of as much as 10 feet under the right conditions (in the southeastern United States) by late summer. Not only are its berries attractive, but they have also been used as ink (thus the common name of "inkberry") and as a dye.
“Common Pokeweed Identification and Management.” Penn State Extension,
Safe and Poisonous Garden Plants: Toxic Plants (by Scientific Name). University of California.
Pokeweed. Pet Poison Helpline.
Common Pokeweed. Invasive Plants Atlas.
Phytolacca americana. Invasive Species of Japan.
Herbicides and Your Health. WebMD.