More cool weeds



Spring and fall seem to be the best time for these mostly native plants; I guess they stand out at a time when color is less notable elsewhere. Currently, I am reading Weeds in my Garden: Observations on Some Misunderstood Plants, by Charles Heiser, and am planning to check out some other weed titles, including, perhaps, All About Weeds, which I quoted in Sunday’s post, but have only skimmed.

I endorse many of the plants featured in Heiser’s gently entertaining book, especially phytolacca americana, or pokeweed. I believe it can be found just about everywhere in North America. Many of you are familiar, so bear with me when I note that it can be 10 feet tall, with broad green leaves, stems maturing to purple and wonderful racemes of berries that also mature from green to purple. (It is not yet ready for its close-up here; the image is from elsewhere.) The contrast of the green and purple makes this a less ordinary plant for arrangements (I find it more effective in the vase stripped of most of the leaves). My alley-side pokeweed migrated from the neighbor’s weed patch. Had I a larger growing space, I would nurture of small stand of it somewhere in my main garden area. It is a very handsome plant and looks wonderful with goldenrod.

As for the whole poison thing (here we go again), Heiser has an anecdote:

…when taking a group of students on a field trip and coming across a pokeweed, I told them that they had probably heard this plant was poisonous as I boldly put a berry in my mouth. I was swallowing it when I realized that the berries I had eaten [before] at the Deans’ were cooked whereas this one was raw! I died, of course.

The root is poisonous, according to most authorities, but those of you familiar with the song “Poke Salad Annie” (Tony Joe White, 1969, later covered by Elvis Presley) know that the young shoots have long been a popular wild green (if cooked). In case you’re not familiar, here’s an excerpt:

Everyday ‘fore supper time
She’d go down by the truck patch
And pick her a mess o’ poke salad 

And carry it home in a tote sack
Poke salad Annie, ‘gators got you granny
Everybody said it was a shame
‘Cause her mama was aworkin’ on the chain-gang
listen here(This version is by Captain Luke and Cool John Ferguson, not Tony Joe White.)

Sadly, not all the weeds I like have had songs written about them. The others I enjoy at this time of year are the daisy fleabane (I believe that is what I am seeing) and giant reed, seen in company with goldenrod along most of the highways around here. These are tall plants, but I think a good weed in an urban area needs to be tall in order to assert itself. I make no assertions about the good or bad properties of these plants in their WNY habitat; I simply find them elegant, graceful additions to the autumn landscape. When they are gone, winter will be hot on their heels.

Oh, what the heck: here is the video Craig found on You Tube of Tony Joe White performing “Poke Salad Annie”. (My dad had the studio version as a 45 on his basement jukebox.) This live footage is AMAZING. Thank you, Craig!

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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 regular 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. Yes.

    I fell hard for Phylolacca americana when I first came across it (this summer) in the Perennial Parterre (Area perennis) of Linnaeus’ Garden in Uppsala Sweden. Robust. Covered with racemes (No poke berries yet). I found it irresitable.

    In fact, I promptly came back home to the U.S. and mistakenly purchased Lysimachia clethroides (Gooseneck Loosestrife) thinking it was what I’d seen (the same kind of bloom). And THEN I checked my notes.

    I wrote about it here:
    Lysimachus’ Dog & Nisaean Horses

    Anyway, I’m no photographer but I happened to snap many-many photos of the Pokeweed (and the garden itself) while in Linnaeus’ Garden.

    The habit is so ROBUST and VIGOROUS. It is nice to see a plant that seems to happy to be alive. I agree with Elizabeth. Great plant!

    Those of you who want to see more about what this plant looks like, take a peek at my Flickr Phylolacca americana photoset if you like:

  2. I love poke and so do the birds. In fact, they very, very, very generously share the seeds with me. If I don’t weed the poke out fairly religiously, I would be over-run in short order. So, while I try not to admire it in my own borders, I do admire it in all of its seasonal glory in the abandoned lot across the road. I also love Virginia creeper which will be in glorious fall color soon. I do allow a bit of Va creeper to do its thing along the edge of my yard.

  3. I admired a pokeweed growing under a tree in a nursery parking lot a few weeks ago and rapturously asked the nurseryman what it was. Just an old pokeweed, was his answer. Turns out the birds had seeded it there, and they just let it grow. Well, it looked beautiful anyway.

  4. Pokeweed was a favorite as a child because we made ink out of the berries and then tatooed ourselves, much to our mothers’ dismay.

  5. This is one of the plants that children can readily recognize, perhaps not the name, but the purple berries are magnetic and often at eye level. I don’t need to plant this one. It is everywhere.

  6. We had a huge pokeweed at the back of our garden next to the shed, but my husband decided to pull it and many other weeds a few weeks ago. If I knew that the berries ripened to purple I wouldn’t have let him! I’ve read that if you don’t get every bit of the taproot when you pull pokeweed you’ll likely have pokeweed again. If it comes back next year I won’t be too upset now.

  7. I had never heard of pokeweed growing up in western Washington, but then the huckleberry bush I grew up with there is unknown where I now live (Ohio). I first learned about it and its brightly-staining berries when it grew in my first home and I attempted to pull it up, far too late. I still have magenta-fingered gardening gloves from that day.

  8. Clerk, I saw your comments about it on your blog–I thought the gooseneck mix-up was funny (a plant I also love).

    But I’m not getting anything from the flickr link.

    I do hope to get some good images myself later in the season– just a bit early for this plant now (in WNY). I wish I had shot some before–close-ups of the berries as they are changing are very cool.

  9. Egads! The stuff is a perennial? %95 of what came up in a section of Hemlock forest that was cleared for my future small house is Pokeweed. The birds must have been making deposits there for decades. I thought it was an annual and would not make it to bloom before frost and did not need to worry about it.

    All Pokeweeds are not created equal either. There is the pretty one with the red stems and nice leaf coloration and then there is a plain light green one, green stems and it seems fewer flowers. I have the mostly dull one, an entire hillside of it, temporarily.

  10. The County Clerk has a teeny error in the second link: click on Clerk’s link above and then go to the navigation bar and change the “t” to an “l” in the last word (currently phytolacca, should be phylolacca).

  11. Thanks, Karen!

    (Phytolacca is the right name, just to be clear.)

    Actually, Chris C, Heronswood used to sell this in their catalog! I wonder if that was because the prettier one is not as widely seeded in the Northwest and your area? Seems hard to believe.

  12. Poke salad is an old southern green. You have to boil it twice, I think, and only use the young tender leaves. Old timers really like it. Well, since there’s tons of it around, I guess none of us are going to starve if all other crops fail.

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