Landscaping with pokeweed



Yes. The time has come. I’m embarrassed by my unruly pokeweed, now that I see this … pokeweed standard?

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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. Your not going to cut it down before the berries ripen are you?
    Cardinals love those dark purple treats and will come back for more until all are eaten.
    Pokeweed does not pose an invasive problen here in Chicago as the winters usually are to harsh.Rarely do I find find it growing but when I do it is left to grow even though it grows so large…Gloria

  2. Here in my warm Northern California yard, this stuff has spread like heat rash! It IS pretty but not when it comes up EVERYWHERE. I haven’t noticed any of the local birds eating the berries though they surely must? (No, they are too busy emptying all my bird feeders!) Our winters are much too mild to make pokeweed get pokey. Dang!

  3. Folks should be careful with pokeweed- it is very toxic and can absorb through the skin. Of course, the shoots, looking like asparagus, can be eaten and is a southern food. But you got to get it before it leafs out.

    In addition to birds loving it, the giant leopard moth digs it as well.

    If you have young kids make sure to let them know not to play with the berries!

  4. Elizabeth you have one unruly pokeweed? I have a unruly pokeweed forest. If anyone would like to adopt and remove one of my pokeweeds and train it into a standard for their garden they are more than welcome.

    I was horrified when I learned these are perennials.

  5. Poke Lore:
    A pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) plant has grown to nearly twenty feet tall where it leans on an oak tree. The official descriptions of this plant peg the height as up to 10 feet. I guess they didn’t consider our long growing season here in Florida or that it might lean on a tree for support. It grows, blooms, and produces its dark purple berries until a frost– usually late December or early January. The top of the plant will die back after the first frost, but the root survives and sends up new shoots in the spring. Each year the plant gets larger.

    I’ve seen various species of birds eating the berries, and purple deposits polka dot the cement driveway under trees where those birds perch near this plant. It’s a desirable weed for your wildlife garden.

    I’ve done my share of foraging over the years, but I’ve never been tempted by pokeweed, because you need to catch it early in the season before the poisons build up in the stem so you can cut it off and eat it like asparagus. You also can eat the greens, but you must boil them twice and throw out the first water to get rid of the toxins–this has been called poke sallet, an old English term for cooked greens. I always thought people were saying, “poke salad,” but that didn’t make any sense because you’d never eat the uncooked greens. The root and the seeds are the most toxic parts of the plant.

    Native Americans took full advantage of pokeweed, using the plant medicinally and employing the berries and stems for dye and for painting their horses. Supporters for James Polk, our eleventh president, reportedly wore pokeweed leaves around their necks. The common name is sometimes spelled, “Polk.”

  6. Well, I think that particular pokeweed is quite pretty – the red stems with the crown of green leaves are quite fetching. If I had one that looked like that in my garden, I’l probably let it stay.

  7. To add to Ginny’s Pokeweed Folklore- the Constitution (at least one of the drafts) is written in fermented pokeweed ink- the bush is sometimes called inkberry.

  8. I always leave a few Pokeberries growing…

    They are a striking plant! But I DO keep their numbers limited:)

  9. I am happy to finally find out what this plant is. It comes up all over my yard, especially where my non-gardener neighbors have allowed one to come up on their side of the fence line and drop seeds into my bed. Seriously theirs is 6+ feet.

  10. You’re on to something here…topiary weeds as an untapped genre of specialized gardening. Are the people at Taunton Press paying attention? *smirk* – But seriously, I think it looks cool and I vote for a stay of execution. – Eric

  11. There is a wonderful variegated form of this common weed. In the fall when the crown is dripping with berries, the stems are glowing magenta and the leaves are splashes of gold and cream with squiggles of green – it is breathtaking. Not bad for a weed.

  12. Yes, if you like the normal Pokeweed, you’ll love the variegated form! After two tries, I finally got it to survive an Iowa winter. It is about 4′ tall, now, and quite striking! Check it out!

  13. I have a specimen at the head of my driveway that comes back year after year no matter what I do to it. Pull it out? Grows right back. Mow it down? Grows right back. Roundup? It dies back, and then regrows from the same root stock. You’ve gotta respect a plant that is that hardy. Too bad it’s toxic as all hell.

  14. One of these showed up in my garden in Massachusetts. I thought it was fascinating and let it grow–to six or eight feet. The next year there were dozens, and they weren’t all that easy to pull up — so I’ve discouraged them since. Too bad!

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