While out in a local floodplain forest I came across an unusual plant I hadn’t noticed before. It had huge leaves that were starting to turn red in the cool fall air, and it resembled a tropical plant. After some research I learned this was an American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana, Phytolaccaceae).
I suspect this plant is more well-known in the south. It seems pretty uncommon here in Michigan, at least in the plant communities I frequent. On top of that, a number of southern towns have festivals dedicated to this plant and its culinary and medicinal uses.
Although all parts of this plant contain numerous toxins, with some careful preparation it can be ingested. Leaves can be eaten as greens once boiled repeatedly to cleanse them. Ripe berries can be made into jams and pies once the poisonous seeds are removed. Additionally, different parts are used in a vast number of folk remedies. More recently it was discovered that a certain protein in this plant may have promise in treating AIDS.
Despite all I learned about this plant, I still don’t know why it’s called “pokeweed.” There didn’t seem to be anything pokey about it.
By the time Halloween rolled around a couple of weeks later, this plant had reached the end of the road:
Now that these plants have caught my attention, I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of them next year.