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This weed POKES BACK! Pokeweed or American Nightshade

Updated on January 16, 2014

Phytolacca americana

Hey! do NOT give me any guff about the proper name of this plant in the title above! The specific species of the plant (in accordance with proper taxonomic nomenclature) IS indeed supposed to be Lowercase.

Genus: Phytolacca, and Species: americana

Meet the American Nightshade or American Pokeweed, also known as Belladonna (or Beautiful Lady).

Why was it called "Beautiful Lady"? In days of yore, Italian women would use Belladonna to dilate the pupils of their eyes, making them appear more alluring... Well, at least their EYES could be made more alluring... (applying alcohol LIBERALLY to the Male (via injestion), would take care of other aesthetic issues the woman had.) Belladonna would also cause the parasympathetic musculature of automatic eye-lense focusing to begin to fail, blurring the ladies vision. (It occurs to me that this may have been a source of disappointing marriage-mate choice.) BLINDNESS could possibly hamper a Ladies "discernment" in marriage partner. Necessitating that the LADY now apply alcohol LIBERALLY, (internally) to Her Own Self.

For a few years now, I have "noticed" this weed, the American Pokeweed. And I consider it a SPECTACULAR "weed". It is an absolutely massive perennially herbaceous plant, often reaching 8 to 10 feet in height! (This is a WEED, we are talking about now!) Often, the "stem" of this weed, is at least one inch in diameter, or larger. An inch and a half is not uncommon. I humorously refer to it as a "shade-weed", No Joke, you could literally park a chair under it and take shelter from the sun. Often, the weed is at least 4 to 6 feet tall. I daily pass a lot nearby where in a corner near the road a small patch of Belladonna is growing quite vigorously. I've been keeping an eye on it, and monitoring its progress. The owner of the property does not mow that section of his lawn, and the weeds grow uninhibited.

A very large weed with black or purple berries

The plant dies back in the winter, and the root remains. For this plant to reach it's maximum height, it must be a few years old before the white taproot will be large enough to support the huge herbaceous structure. The stem will turn more red as it matures. The leaves can be as large as sixteen inches in length.

The berries (depending upon the EXACT species) can have a couple of different looks. The berries, when ripe DO look convincingly like an edible berry.

They are not... well, not truly... well, maybe they are. It is said that the poison (atropine) is in the seeds of the berries. Certain birds ( cardinals, mockingbirds, the brown thrasher and grey catbird ) do eat the berries because they do not digest the seeds, but merely act as carriers for the seeds.

It is said that a jelly or pie can be made of the berries if the seeds are strained out. And then, the berry juice must be "cooked" before it is edible. I understand that it is possible to use the leaves in something called "Poke Salad". But only if you blanch the leaves 3 or 4 (5 or 6?) times. The great white root can NEVER be made edible.

No Part of this plant is ever to be consumed UNCOOKED

- Ever.

And even IF it is "cooked", you may still experience unpleasant symptoms if the foliage (or berries) are not prepared properly. This all sounds just a tad too questionable for me. But, as I have read, there are actually "Poke Salad" parties held in other parts of the country. And, Poke Salad is even offered commercially. So apparently someone does know how to prepare this plant as food. Still- it seems a terrible lot of work, and risk. But that's just ME.

Adults have been known to eat as many as 10 of the berries raw, and survive. Children have consumed as few as two of the berries and perished from the experience. Again, the root is never edible, in any form- having the highest concentration of toxins. Do not allow children to "play" with the weed, in any form. Physical contact with damaged plant parts, resulting in juices contacting a child's (or adults) skin- is courting disaster. And children tend to put things, especially their own fingers, into mouths, eyes, ears, noses... etc.

Home remedies

The berries have been used as a treatment for boils when dried and ingested whole. One berry is taken each day, for seven days... or until the subject is dead... (just kidding) but that would be ONE way to get rid of boils, eliminate the patient. If you have a "rash of the breast" (and I assume this "special" treatment is reserved for the ladies, due to its wording) IF you have a rash of the breast, a poultice is made of the ground root, and applied to the inflammation... until the subject is dead... (sorry I can't HELP it, I just don't understand the efficacy of this plant unless you INTEND to harm someone... yet it IS claimed to be medicinal)


Okay.... Okay... it IS actually possibly medicinal. The atropine is an actual drug in use under special cardiac conditions. When the human heart is beating too slowly, atropine is used to interfere with the parasympathetic (automatic) nervous system that tells the heart to slow. By interfering with the feedback, the heart beats more rapidly. But in that case, the atropine is administered in a sterile, synthetic form, not in any "root" or "berry". Atropine is a common part of every infantryman's field kit, IF that field kit equips him to deal with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Often, in chemical warfare, there is a tremendous interference with the proper function of the nervous system. The elimination of the acetyl-choline is reduced, resulting in too much, causing really bad nervous system side effects. It's thought that since the atropine interferes with the uptake of acetyl-choline, it would inhibit or possibly temporarily reduce such bad side effects. (Has anyone spoken with any soldiers who've taken atropine under NBC battle-conditions lately?) Again, from my own perspective, basically a soldier exposed to ANY nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is dead, if not simply dying very soon. The "poison" / cure of atropine, may either slow the death, or possibly hasten it... take your pick. It's a shot in the dark to MAYBE extend the life of a soldier on the field mere minutes or a few hours at most. And those last hours will not exactly be "high-quality" hours. Atropine simply is a very very powerful chemical not to be trifled with.

On that note, please do understand, that if you are faced with removing these weeds in abundance from your property. DO TAKE PRECAUTIONS such as WEARING GLOVES, if handling them directly and roughly.

I am NOTORIOUS for never wearing gloves, and it is tempting to possibly rip these plants apart by the grasping the stalk and tearing them apart. Though large and robust, they are quite brittle and breakable by a mortals strength. Do not be fooled. Wear gloves... or you may find yourself terribly ill. Or even MARGINALLY ill, and unable to pinpoint the source of your "illness".

In other words, do NOT "touch" the broken plant parts with too much of your bare skin!

Just a gentle warning.

Atropine is being researched for use in HIV treatment

Indigenous peoples of America used pokeweed in the herbal treatment as a heart stimulant, to treat cancer, rheumatism, itching and syphilis... and THAT sounds just about "right" to me. Itching, syphilis, and cancer... same treatment (kill the patient- I guess). Sorry, I just can't help being insouciant.

Pokeweed berries can be processed to yield a red ink or die... I mean DYE. (sorry)


A patent has been filed to use the toxins in poke weed to control Zebra Mussels, which are a highly invasive freshwater species originating in Russia. .

Poke weeds are often grown purely to be ornamental plants, mainly for their beautiful berry clusters. Cultivated specifically for larger berry clusters.

Poke weed is used as food for some Lepidoptera... more specifically, the Giant Leopard Moth. And personally, I think that that would be the BEST use for the plant, other than decorative... or as a garden shading plant.

Seriously, you could use a few of the Poke Weeds, planted around in a tomato garden to provide some protection from sun. it may actually help the tomatoes (which themselves are members of the nightshade family, believe it or not) by allowing them to grow in "bright" conditions without full direct sun at all times. The American Nightshade seems to LOVE direct sun, shading all smaller weeds/plants.

And you may have a few moths or butterflies eating the leaves.

Giant leopard moth larvae

Classification Kingdom Animalia (Animals) Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods) Class Insecta (Insects) Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) No Taxon (Moths) Superfamily Noctuoidea Family Erebidae Subfamily Arctiinae (Tiger and Lichen Moths) Tribe Arct
Classification Kingdom Animalia (Animals) Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods) Class Insecta (Insects) Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) No Taxon (Moths) Superfamily Noctuoidea Family Erebidae Subfamily Arctiinae (Tiger and Lichen Moths) Tribe Arct

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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 

      22 months ago

      Geez, are we talking about the same weed here? I come from the Ozarks where poke sallet (we spell it "sallet") is a staple in our diets. We pick it with our bare hands. My grandmother taught me to parboil it, pour off the water and then boil it with some pork, preferably fatback. We ate it with beans and cornbread. I always took a bite of all three at the same time to hide the harsh taste of the poke sallet. We kids were cautioned that the berries were the poisonous part and to not eat them. However, we used to pick them and use them for ink with the quill pens we made from rooster or large bird feathers.

    • stvrich profile imageAUTHOR

      StvRich 

      5 years ago from East Rockaway - Long Island - Planet: Earth ~

      ThankYou- I threw in the factoid about the Moth, merely b/c the weed itself seems to be so... "death-oriented". And the moth was just a frivolous touch. (the moth is not REALLY part of the topic / which is the plant itself. Moths eat LOTS of different leaves)

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 

      5 years ago from America

      In the south they eat pokeweed greens or fried pokeweed. This is very interesting hub. Very interesting about the moth. Voted up.

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