Landscaping with weeds, continued


Though I missed the boat with Bishop’s Weed and Dayflower, having successfully pulled all these out of my yard years ago, I still have some excellent opportunities with Phytolacca americana, which comes up in various places throughout the property. I had been pulling it out, but this year, a seven-feet-and-rising specimen is dominating the front yard. It gets kind of boring out there, now that the maples have leafed out—just a lot of shade perennials, colocasia in pots, and so on—so I thought it might be fun to shake things up with a monstrous weed.

Pokeweed can use a little manicuring to look its best. If you strip away the larger leaves on the lower stem, it can assume a tree form, and then when the berries emerge and the stems turn red, you have a very handsome plant. (A picture I took in 2008 of the plants trimmed in this manner is now used on a bunch of other gardening blogs. I guess they can’t find their own pokeweed to photograph.)

Plants that just come up and flourish with little to no attention from me are always interesting, especially during a season when so much attention has been needed. In Western New York, as in many other regions, this has been a parched summer. I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to keep a garden going where it’s even hotter.

For those who enjoy  a native plant that really looks wild,  poke fits that bill more than any plant I know. And I justify myself with the recollection that Heronswood (the original) actually used to sell this.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Chickens love poke weed.

    Looks great when the berries go deep purple.

    Yes, pruned as you describe a great ornamental.

    And what a super common name !

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I love pokeweed and have left a couple in the wilder areas of our garden. I think they are a truly handsome plant – and anything that can survive and even thrive through this summer and last, especially with absolutely no input from me, has my complete attention these days.

    I’ve noticed that the mockingbirds absolutely love the ripe berries of pokeweed.

    Just be sure to remember that the berries (and indeed all parts of the plant) are poisonous to eat, so it’s probably not a good plant to have around small children.

  3. Well, I do love pokeweed and there is a cultivated variegated variety which is much smaller. I hear you can use the berries to dye material but I have yet to need them for this purpose.

  4. Wow, variegated pokeweed. Who would have thought. Actually, I’ve read it is a fantastic plant for the birds, but I thought it only grew in sun. I don’t think I’d grow it in front (the neighbors think I’m crazy as it is), but if I could put it in the shady back I might try it.

    This reminds me of a neighbor who was pointing out with pride a vine with little purple flowers and green to red berries. “You know that’s Deadly Nightshade, right?” I asked her. She said she did, but since there were no little kids around, why not appreciate its ornamental qualities? I admit she has a point.

  5. Something large and yet to flower is coming up in one of the flower pots. I am letting it go, waiting to see if I can identiry it once it bloosm. It looks quite nice with the dwarf yellow cannas. And with this drought and heat anything that stays green is appreciated.

    Neighbors have a very shady back yard. The lawn is mostly creeping charlie, and looks great and smells good to boot when walked upon. And it shrugs off the heat and drought. Good weed for a varity lawn. That would be a lawn that is not 100% grass.

  6. Spiky mullein! This plant pops up out of nowhere, grows up to 6 feet tall, with large fuzzy grey-green leaves and a huge phallic spike of yellow flowers on top. Every time it pops up in my yard, it gets to stay; I have nothing else like it. Sometimes it re-seeds itself, but mostly it’s just there for a year and then gone.

    I have a love-hate relationship with wild chicory; it has taproots from hell, spreads like wildfire, is hard to get rid of, and the plant itself is wiry, ugly, and hard to work around. But it’s periwinkle-blue blooms are gorgeous, especially where there are lots blooming; people always ask what it is and think I planted it on purpose. It oftengrows right next to another weed, Queen Anne’s lace; blooming together they make a very striking planting.

    I will add something heretical: we have knapweed, which I know should be yanked and destroyed. But every summer it blooms right when the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies most need it, so I’m ambivalent about destroying it.

  7. My kids went on school camping trips (maybe around 9th grade) where almost everyone came home painted with pokeberry juice. I just asked them (now in their 20s) if they remember this and got a resounding NO! Anyway, apparently you can use pokeberries as a dye of sorts…

  8. Love pokeweed! Sadly it falls over and turns to mush the instant it gets cold here. Mine petered out and expired after awhile, and I keep hoping the birds will plant more.

  9. My grandparents grew up eating young pokeweed leaves as a green. While other people eat spinach or collards, they ate pokeweed. It was free and plentiful–perfect for a poor family of sharecroppers.

    I spoke with a permaculturalist who claims that poke adds to the garden in many different ways, among which I think was a tap root that breaks up hard soil and pulls out harmful chemicals. If I remember correctly (it’s been over a year since we spoke).

    In any case, a great plant, no question asked.

    • The young greens should be parboiled, water discarded and then you have poke-salad. Eat like spinach, with vinegar ( malt is better) or use anyway you would use wilted spinach.

  10. If I had less of it and it was as petite as your specimen Elizabeth I would consider removing it from my hit list. For now it is a gargantuan perennial weed with a taproot the size of a Volkswagen. Hate it!

    • ChristopherC, I am surprised at you! Of all people, I thought you would find a place where pokeweed could show off its magnificence. I had one that grew every year right under the fence of my horse’s corral, and it was the highlight of my autumn, every year. This year, I have let one grow up beside a boulder in a sometimes-customer’s back yard. This post reminds me to go groom it, so he will find it as splendid as I do.

  11. Curly Dock (also Horseradish) has huge, dark green, ribbon-like leaves and makes a hard to kill substitute for Japanese Holly Fern or Hart’s Tongue Fern in hot dry areas. Handsome panicles of green seeds turn cinnamon brown, but beware that the seeds don’t go everywhere.

  12. A wonderful plant with many uses. My parents and grandparents ate it growing up in Missouri, cooked, and loved it. I tried it a few times as a child but didn’t appreciate cooked greens as I do now.

    “Weeds” I welcome (in limited quanities) in my garden in Colorado include mullein, wild sunflower, soapwort, oxeye daisy, salsify–the list goes on. All beautiful and/or useful.

  13. I care for a garden right near downtown San Francisco and in it are some very large Pokeweed. I did not know what they were until I read this post. This garden is extremely shady and maybe gets an hour of sun. It is foggy and cold much of the time in summer and the plants thrive. My landlord lets them stay because they are attractive and free.

  14. Can’t say I’ve seen pokeweed on my property but in the gravely area by my mailbox is an herb with small daisy like flowers-the name escapes me right now but how it survives where it blooms quite nicely is ok by me. I have alot of swamp milkweed both pink and white that has self seeded in one of my garden beds and goes quite well with my purple balloon flower!

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