Tuesday, October 22, 2013

An Unwanted Garden Invader

Phytolacca americana
Over the past couple months you may have noticed a large, shrubby plant with reddish stems and beautiful purple-black berries. What you are seeing is Common Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. Although I often find it attractive, pokeweed is generally considered an unwanted garden invader.
Pokeweed is a native herbaceous perennial. It can grow one to three meters tall and resembles a small tree. The large, thick stems are smooth and upright, while the leaves are alternate, egg-shaped and pale green. Pokeweed is supported by a large fleshy taproot that persists through the winter after the succulent stems have died back.  Pokeweed flowers are small and white and give way to conspicuous green berries that ripen to a deep purple-black color. Even though the fruit may look tempting, don’t eat it! All parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous, including the berries.
In natural areas, pokeweed is an important wildlife plant. Berry-eating birds, such as Northern Mockingbirds, American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, load up on pokeweed berries. Many mammals including gray fox, raccoons, and white-footed mice enjoy the fall fruit as well. Both birds and mammals are directly responsible for the spread of pokeweed seeds. Despite pokeweed’s wildlife benefits, it is generally considered a weed in the cultivated landscape. Pokeweed grows very quickly and will shade out desirable bedding plants if it is allowed to grow. In many cases, pokeweed is not an aesthetically pleasing addition to a garden bed.
Pokeweed is fairly easy to control once you have identified it. The plant can be destroyed simply by digging up the taproot with a spade or soil knife. If possible, try to remove plants before they form fruit. Otherwise, the animals in your area will help spread this weed throughout your yard. Although it is probably too late to stop the spread of seeds this year, keep an eye out for new plants in the spring. In the meantime, happy weeding!

Photos by Emma Erler
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