Portraits of Wildflowers

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Pokeweed Flower Remains and Leaves 0558

The post about puccoon this morning led Gallivanta to raise the matter of the word’s origin, which is in a language of the Algonquian Indian family. In my reply I mentioned that the linguistic root means ‘red,’ something that’s hard to understand when looking at bright (and crinkled) yellow flowers. Apparently the roots of some puccoon species are red, and that explains the name.

The Algonquian word for ‘red’ has also given us the name of an unrelated plant, pokeweed (or pokeberry), Phytolacca americana, which I remember from my childhood on Long Island and which also grows natively here in central Texas. This photograph from 2006 shows the red stalks in the plant’s inflorescence. I assume this is the stage where the flowers have fallen off and the little fruits are beginning to form. Those fruits (“berries” in common parlance) will eventually turn purple, and if you handle them you can easily stain your hands purplish red; in fact another name for the species is inkberry.

Many people consider this plant a weed (hence the common name with weed in it), and I should add that all parts of the plant are poisonous.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 29, 2015 at 12:07 PM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

34 Responses

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  1. Yay,pokeweed! Thank you,Steve,for highlighting one of the prettiest,most vibrantly-colored, humble plants one is apt to meet during a stroll in Austin’s diminishing woodlands. Michael

    Michael Mciver

    March 29, 2015 at 12:12 PM

    • Hi, Michael. I don’t know why I hadn’t shown any pokeweed till now, but you sure sound happy to see it. When I visited Bastrop a couple of years ago I found quantities of pokeweed coming up where the fire that had so devastated the pine forest created openings for previously suppressed species. There’s at least one pokeweed plant I know in Great Hills Park, which as a park won’t see its vegetation lost to development.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 1:34 PM

  2. Some people eat the poke weed, even though it’s poisonous. I was like, “WOAH!” when I found that out. It has to be very, very carefully prepared. One of my friends has eaten it. Not worth the effort in her opinion.


    March 29, 2015 at 12:25 PM

    • I’ve read that people, especially in the South, have eaten it because it’s free food, but as you point out, the young leaves apparently have to be boiled several times and the water discarded to get red of the poisons. It doesn’t sound as if it’s worth the trouble unless you’re very poor.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 1:37 PM

  3. This phytolacca grows in the park across the road from my house. I believe ink was made from it in an earlier time. It’s a bit of a nusiance because it grows throughout the Gunnera bed, but it is a very pretty and vibrant plant. Also phytolacca is a homeopathic treatment for some illnesses. Of course only to be taken under supervision by a certified therapist of course.


    March 29, 2015 at 12:31 PM

    • I had to look up the genus Gunnera, which I see has members with huge leaves. From what you’ve said, it seems that pokeweed is good at competing with it and maybe even outdoing it. I hadn’t heard about using pokeweed homeopathically, but caution is definitely advised.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 1:56 PM

  4. Most parts of the plant are considered poisonous. Cooking does not guarantee to fix that.

    Jim in IA

    March 29, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    • Indeed: “Cooked berries and leaves (cooked twice in separate water) can be eaten (although there is no guarantee that they are safe).” That said, for a long time people have been eating the multiply-boiled plant, so apparently it’s possible to reduce the toxins to a safe level. I’m certainly not going to try it, though.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 2:06 PM

  5. Not only do some folks eat it, there’s even an annual poke salad festival in Blanchard, Louisiana (on May 4-9 this year) and, of course, the 1968 song Poke Salad Annie, written & performed by Tony Joe White. Other common names include Virginia poke, American nightshade, cancer jalap, coakum, garget, pigeon berry, pocan, pokeroot, pokeberry, poke sallet, redweed, scoke, red ink plant and chui xu shang lu (in Chinese medicine).


    March 29, 2015 at 1:27 PM

    • This colorful plant has one of the most colorful social histories of any species I’ve featured here, as evidenced by the things you’ve mentioned and plenty more. If no one has written a recent book about the human interactions with pokeweed, there seems to be an opportunity here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 2:11 PM

      • Indeed! I am having a fine time listening to Poke Salad Annie. What a fascinating plant.


        March 30, 2015 at 2:57 AM

  6. As mentioned, there is a way to prepare it for “relatively” safe consumption, but one needs be quite careful. There are also a few varieties of poisonous mushrooms that can be consumed similarly after careful multiple boilings. I agree with Ann above, seems like way too much trouble, even for free food. And as Jim points out, there are no guarantees for safety. But then, even USDA approval doesn’t guarantee everything either.
    I have this lovely plant growing in our backyard as well as several other local spots where I can shoot it. And I believe you are correct that this is the intermediate stage between flower and fruit and it appears that there are a few unopened buds that may not come to fruition.

    Steve Gingold

    March 29, 2015 at 1:48 PM

    • I have to go half a mile to find a pokeweed plant, so you’re fortunate (photographically speaking, at the least) to have one in your back yard. I searched your blog but didn’t turn up any hits for pokeweed, so perhaps you’ll remedy that absence later this year.

      As you and Ann say, the necessary preparation to maybe get the plant into an edible condition seems like too much work. I guess that’s an insight into how hard up some people have been.

      As for your statement that “even USDA approval doesn’t guarantee everything either,” you’ve made a good point. One consequence of reaching our age is that we’ve seen scientific “authorities” reverse themselves, sometimes more than once, on whether a certain food is harmful.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 2:19 PM

      • Yes, the USDA does sometimes have to backtrack as well as the FDA.

        I shall remedy the case of the missing pokeweed in the next blog post.

        Steve Gingold

        March 29, 2015 at 2:26 PM

        • Sounds like the case of the missing pokeweed is about to be solved by Sherlock Gingold.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 29, 2015 at 2:28 PM

          • Better Sherlock than Shylock, thanks to Mr. Shakespeare. Speaking of Sherlock, some friends of mine had a security system installed by “Surelock Homes”.

            Steve Gingold

            March 29, 2015 at 2:37 PM

            • What a great name for a company: I wish I’d thought of it. On the other hand, a shy lock might do an excellent job of staying closed up in the face of intruders.

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 29, 2015 at 2:42 PM

  7. I find it fascinating where the names of the plants originate from. Whether Latin or Greek or local, indigenous peoples. Great photo.

    Raewyn's Photos

    March 29, 2015 at 2:07 PM

    • I was happy to see that so many native plant and animal names survive in New Zealand. There are many fewer in the United States. A few examples are: chipmunk, opossum, hickory, moose, pecan, raccoon, skunk, and of course puccoon and poke(weed).

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 2:27 PM

  8. Ah, yes, pokeweed. One of the first plants to introduce itself to us (in abundance) when we had a place on Long Island!

    Susan Scheid

    March 29, 2015 at 4:48 PM

    • There were still some “vacant” lots in the Long Island suburbs back then, and that’s where the pokeberry grew.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 5:53 PM

  9. Qué bonitas. Es un macro excelente.
    Saludos y ¡buena semana!

  10. Beautiful colors!


    March 29, 2015 at 7:23 PM

  11. It may be regarded as a weed by some and be poisonous but it’s a very pretty colour and would certainly capture my attention if I saw it in bushland here. I quite like the name “inkberry.”


    March 29, 2015 at 8:44 PM

    • I’ve counted over two dozen native species in my area that have weed in their common name. All that tells me is that someone didn’t like them for various reasons, but I’ve found something portrait-worthy in each one. You’ll have to come to Austin and see them all, including pokeweed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 29, 2015 at 9:47 PM

  12. […] other day, Steve Schwartzman, posted an image of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)and in replying to my comment observed that I […]

  13. I see all the bases have been covered — from the dinner table to the song. I know some people who tell of having poke salad on their tables when they were young. At the time, they were poor: not just short of cash, but truly impoverished. Today, they eat veggies from the markets and give thanks they survived.


    March 31, 2015 at 6:46 AM

    • Eating poke salad (sallet) must still have been better than the poke in the eye with a sharp stick that people like to invoke these days, which has nothing to do with the pig in a poke that a different locution cautions us not to buy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 31, 2015 at 7:05 AM

      • And see the title of Steve G’s pokeweed post. I’m not sure, but I think that use of “poke” is a Facebook term.


        March 31, 2015 at 7:11 AM

        • At


          I found this: “People poke their friends or friends of friends on Facebook for a lot of reasons (ex: just saying hello, getting their attention). When you poke someone, they’ll receive a notification… and will then be able to poke you back.”

          Sounds pointless (but not pokeless) to me. I guess it’s for people who are too lazy to send a message, which would require having something to say, and hopefully even something worth saying. Oh, curmudgeonly me.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 31, 2015 at 7:59 AM

          • Well….I did sort of kind of in a slightly removed way mean the same thing, but only in the usual reminder intent and with no connection to Facebook’s poking which I find to be not only pointless but downright irritating. I might actually prefer the sharp stick in the eye over a FB poke…hyperbole intentional for effect…should we actually ever meet, please restrain the poking impulse.

            Steve Gingold

            March 31, 2015 at 8:05 AM

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