Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana

Life Cycle



Reproducing only by seed.


Stems (Fig 8) produced from taproot, erect, usually 1-2m high but up to 3m high, smooth and hairless, pinkish to bright red, dying down to the ground each year.


Leaves (Fig 4,5) alternate (1 per node), the lower quite large, up to 30-50cm long and about 1/3 as wide, upper leaves shorter and smaller and with shorter leafstalks; all leaves usually dark green above, lighter green to pinkish-green below and with prominent pinkish veins.

Flowers and Fruit

Flowers (Fig 6) greenish-white to pinkish in slender racemes at the ends of the main stem and branches. There are no petals, 5 petal-like sepals (a), 5 to 30 stamens but usually only 10, and a ring of 10 pistils in the centre; at maturity these form a flat, ring- ring-shaped, juicy, purplish berry with 4 to 10 (usually about 6) sections (b), each with 1 large hard seed. The whole plant, but especially the ripe berries, has an intense purplish-red juice that was used for dyeing. Flowers from June to October.

Roots and Underground Structures

Thick perennial taproot, as much as 10-15cm in diameter, very poisonous.


Pokeweed is a native plant which occurs in meadows, edges of woods and waste areas in the southwestern part of southern Ontario; elsewhere in the province it may persist in old gardens after having been cultivated for the young leafy sprouts which are used as a green vegetable if properly cooked and re-cooked, with the cooking water discarded 3 times.

Distinguishing Features

The soft, smooth, fleshy texture of leaves and young stems (Fig 2,3) and the absence of an ocrea at the base of each leaf distinguish Pokeweed from Lamb's-quarters, Pigweeds and the Docks, respectively, with which it might be confused. The flat, juicy, 4 -10-seeded purplish berries arranged in a spike at the ends of smooth stems and branches distinguish it from wild blackberries and raspberries.


Pokeweed can be toxic to humans and livestock. Toxins are concentrated in the berries, seeds and roots. The plant is poisonous to livestock.

The song "Poke Salad Annie" famously sung by Elvis Presley is about Pokeweed. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOzaVpgeHJg to view Elvis's live performance.

Medicinal uses

Research is being conducted investigating a protein isolated from the pokeweed plant, pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP), which may be a promising nonspermicidal broad-spectrum antiviral microbicid. D'Cruz, OJ., Waurzyniak, B., Uckun, F. (2004) Mucosal toxicity studies of a gel formulation of native pokeweed antiviral protein. Toxicologic pathology. 32:212-221.


Pokeweed leaves can be edible, although this is often advised against. There have been reports of people consuming the leaves after first boiling them three times and discarding the water after each boiling. Historically, native peoples have used berries to make a red ink or dye. Armstrong, Wayne. Pokeweed: An Interesting American Vegetable. Retrieved on 2008-06-23.

Figure #1.


Figure #10.

Green berries

Figure #11.

Close up of pokeweed berries.

Figure #12.

Dark purple berries of pokeweed plant.

Figure #13.

Purplish stem of pokeweed.

Figure #14.

Pokeweed plant

Figure #15.

Pokeweed root.

Figure #16.

Pokeweed root.

Figure #2.

Young pokeweed plants growing in horse paddock, in June, Central Ontario.

Figure #3.

Young pokeweed plant.

Figure #4.

Young pokeweed plant.

Figure #5.

New leaf of pokeweed plant.

Figure #6.

Figure #7.

Figure #8.

Small white flower.

Figure #9.

Pokeweed plant in June, Central Ontario.