American Pokeweed: Bane or Beauty?

There’s an American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) growing across the alley from our house. It emerged from an overgrown hedge this year that our new neighbors have cut to the ground.

An American Pokeweed growing in the alley behind our house.

Pokeweed is usually thought of as an aggressive, poisonous weed. The roots, stems, and seeds are particularly toxic. The leaves and berries are also poisonous, but less so. Nevertheless, some people eat the young green leaves and have even made pies from the berries.

Pokeweed berries.

Many birds love American Pokeweed fruit, so you could argue that it’s a good wildlife plant.  Some 30 species eat the purple berries that ripen in fall, including bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, catbirds, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and white-throated sparrows.

Those birds spread the seeds far and wide, which is why I’ve been seeing Pokeweed seedlings emerging lately in our own garden. The seedlings are not difficult to remove if you get them while they are small, but I wouldn’t handle them without gloves.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is that some people consider Pokeweed to be a garden-worthy ornamental. In fact, there are even Pokeweed cultivars. This I learned from the very entertaining and informative garden blog, Sorta Like Suburbia.

frank pokeweed
Photo from Sorta Like Suburbia (

Here’s a picture that Frank (author of Sorta Like) posted of a Pokeweed variety called ‘Sunny-Side Up’. I’ve got to admit that those golden leaves are downright stunning combined with the purple berries.

So I’ve thought about allowing one or two seedlings to take root and grow in our back garden. Only thing is, the straight species can look pretty awkward, with a downright gangly habit.

Actually, I thought about approaching the neighbors with the suggestion that they cut their Pokeweed to the ground, but I decided not to be a buttinsky. On the other hand, Frank relates how he successfully mollified one concerned neighbor with a free beer – maybe I would get the same reward.

If you’re interested in purchasing American Pokeweed, Plant Delights Nursery has 2 varieties for sale, including ‘Sunny-Side Up’. However, I think that I will hold off, at least for now. Judy is not a big fan of the idea.

Have you ever grown (deliberately) Pokeweed in your garden? If not, would you consider it?

73 Comments on “American Pokeweed: Bane or Beauty?”

  1. I have a love-hate relationship with this plant. I appreciate it in the forest preserves when it attracts wildlife. But for years I have yanked it out of my yard (which one has to do early or else it’s a struggle). This year, for the heck of it, since a lot of what was going on in my yard this year was dictated by the plants and their response to all the early rain, I let a couple grow in two different spots. But I can’t say that the berries were much appreciated. Now of course they have been frozen – but that might be a thing for a robin passing by. Guess I’ll see how I feel again next year.

  2. I love pokeweed, which we have in abundance in our meadows and woods. In the spring, we harvest the young tops and boil them for poke sallet. One pokeweed has “poked” up in my native pollinator garden, and I decided to leave it as it is good company for my other cultivated weeds: Joe Pye Weed, Ironweed, and numerous varieties of Milkweed.

    I wrote about Poke here:

    And about my pollinator garden here.

    I love reading about your garden,
    All the best,
    Debbie from Shelbyville, KY

  3. Not a fan! The colors are beautiful, but the plant gets too big too fast, and I read that the seeds are viable in the ground for 40 years. Pokeweed and poison ivy are my two least favorite, but most frequent, garden finds, here in NW Indiana.

  4. I can’t believe it. I spent most of the summer trying to find some pokeweed to photograph, and finally found a tiny bit down on Galveston Island. I know it’s around, but I haven’t come across it. I’m not sure I’d put it in a garden, but if I had a plot of land where I could let natives run free, I’d be glad to include it. In the few times I’ve found it in the past, it’s been clear that something finds the berries palatable — there weren’t more than one or two left.

  5. Well I guess my poke-love has been exposed! Oddly enough I have trouble getting pokeweed to grow on purpose, but when it seeds in to where it wants to grow then it’s carefree… aka weedy? Usually it’s only a pest under the trees and bushes where the birds hang out. Like you said, you do need to get them small. I swear all they do their first few weeks of life is grow a huge taproot.

  6. In answer to your title question, both! I, too, have across the alley poke weed and the birds “plant” it with wild abandon in my yard. God help you if a seedling escapes notice until late in the summer! So, no, I don’t think I’d grow it intentionally. The sunny side up is beautiful but I’m not tempted at all. If you decide to try it, I’ll happily admire it when you post it. Go Jason!

  7. Hard to resist leaving one or two in the wilder rear garden; they’re so gorgeous in late September with the low light coming through the purple leaves… Great frost indicators, too: One morning the leaves are limp and withered, even if everything else looks unscathed.

    Personally, I don’t think ‘Sunny Side Up’ is an improvement over the species, and the idea of paying for a pokeweed makes me chuckle. But it’s a big old world…

  8. I’ve always chopped it down. This year a persistent one came up in the “right” spot and I let it live. Back-lit by the sun, tucked in by an Alberta Spruce and Russian Sage, it was very nice. The berries were also a vivid purple accent. I’ve never grown it purposely but if it comes up in the right spot live with the serendipity.

  9. There are always a few Pokeweed growing here and there. They come up in fence rows and brush piles. This year a plant came up by the lagoonand grew very HUGE. I think they are pretty neat so I usually leave them alone unless they are in the way. I didn’t know there were actually cultivars with lime green leaves until I saw one listed with Pant Delights a few years ago. While that would be neat, I think I am not all that anxious to pay money for Pokeweed. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I have always put pokeweed into the BOMGE (Bane of My Gardening Existence) category, although admittedly below such nemeses as poison ivy, wild garlic, wild blackberry, bittersweet, crabgrass, and the horticultural insanity that is Houttonyia cordata. But it’s on the BOMGE List. Definitely. The yellow (only the newest leaves are yellow, correct? the older ones turn green?) cultivar is interesting but I’d still be a little afraid of it, LOL. Kind of like the sumac called ‘Bailtiger’ … turn your back on it for an instant and it might decide to suck(er) up half the yard….

  11. We both have pokeweed on our minds! I’ve been saving up pics for another in my occasional odes to pokeweed. 🙂 One thing I like to point out is that lots of plants aren’t good for us or our pets to eat. I think this one has a bad rep in that regard because it looks so enticing to kids. I didn’t realize there were cultivars either until I saw one in a garden in NY. And when my husband went to Germany in August, he visited the botanic garden next to his hotel, rounded the first corner, and there in front of him was a giant, proudly labeled specimen of American pokeweed!

  12. Please don’t be casual about the toxicity of pokeweed! All parts are poisonous; even the tender first leaves that were a spring “sallet” for earlier generations were cooked in boiling water first, to leach away the toxins. Wash your hands after handling the plant, and teach children to look, not touch or taste it.

  13. I do let it grow in a few places. I think it looks like a dinosaur era plant which makes me smile, for whatever reason. Plus the birds really like the berries.

    I treat it with respect – handling it only with gloves. (Just like datura!)

  14. BANE!
    It is not native here, but somehow came in just a few years ago. It is everywhere now. I don’t care if the shoots are edible. There are plenty of better and less risky vegetables to grow in much less space. A few years back, I fermented the juice from the berries for ink. I got ‘only’ about half a gallon. That may not seem like much, but an ounce last for MANY years of regularly writing! (I used to write letters daily.)

  15. HA HA – This is why I am loving your blog. I don’t admit to many people that I let some pokeweed grow in wild area of the yard – It grew tall enough to be a screen this summer while some other things catch up. The berries pretty much always get eaten. All that and great descriptions of Talieson West too where I visited quite a few years ago. Now that you mention it the lawn is a weird choice there!

  16. Pokeweed is the devil. What a nightmare! Every year it comes back thicker along the treeline. (Since that’s where the birds hang out– duh! It never occurred to me.) And I spend a day or two every spring, summer & fall pulling it out, then trying to dig up the roots. It grows like a thicket in our MD backyard. So glad I stumbled upon this blog– I thought we were plagued by some variant of our neighbor’s mulberry tree. And thinking it was mulberry I had no clue re: toxicity, despite the skin irritation around my wrists (exposed between gloves & sleeve cuffs). Geez, I even brought the largest roots into my kitchen to photograph them (I couldn’t get over their size or tree-like nature). Thanks for this info. Maybe 2021 is the year we finally destroy the beast. Might as well with lots of time staying “safe” at home again this spring. (But are we *really* safe, with the pokeweed still lurking about?!)

  17. I am growing a specimen pokeweed under an American wisteria that runs along a trellis in the middle of our back garden in Wilmette, IL. Last year it was about 6 ft tall, this year it is even larger. It is gorgeous and I placed a small blue metal table underneath with a couple of folding chairs and love sitting under it. I haven’t decided yet whether to remove the berries or leave them…last year I left them and thought they would be eaten by birds but there were many berries left in the spring, which I discarded.

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