Phytolacca americana L.—Pokeweed; pokeberry; inkberry
FAMILY: Phytolaccaceae—the Pokeweed Family
Native to both America and Africa, this family is composed of plants with leaves: alternate. entire; flowers: in racemes, bisexual (or unisexual); calyx: 4- to S- parted; petals: absent; stamens: 3 to many; ovary: superior (or partly inferior); fruit: drupelike berries. Phytolacca americana is the only plant of the Phytolaccaceae found in Pennsylvania.
PHENOLOGY: Pokeweed flowers July through September.
DISTRIBUTION: Found in rich, disturbed soils such as barnyards, lowlands. fields, fencerows. and moist woodland.
PLANT CHARACTERISTICS: Phytolacca americana can be identified by sepals: greenish white to pink; flowers: 6 mm wide; racemes: 1-2 dm, pedunculate; infructescence: nodding; stamens: 10; pistils: 10; fruit: 5-15 cells, a 1 cm thick, juicy (inky), shiny, dark-purple berry; plants: glabrous, perennial herbs, to 3 m tall, branched above; leaves: lance-oblong to ovate, 1-3 dm; petioles: 1-5 cm.
POISONOUS PARTS: All parts, but primarily the roots, are considered poisonous. Small quantities (more than 10) of raw berries can result in serious poisoning of adults. Fatalities in young children can result from the consumption of a few raw berries.
SYMPTOMS: The more common symptoms are gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and convulsions in severe cases. Perspiration, prostration, weakened respiration and pulse, salivation, and visual disturbance are possible symptoms. Death may result. Humans experience an immediate burning sensation in the mouth upon consumption. Postmortem: gross lesions: mild to severe gastroenteritis; congestion of internal organs; histological lesions: stomach ulcerations with hemorrhage.
POISONOUS PRINCIPLES: The physiologically active principles have been identified. Suspected compounds include saponin, together with lesser amounts of the alkaloid phytolaccin.
CONFUSED TAXA: Few plants are confused with pokeweed. The infructescence may superficially resemble that of chokecherry or wild cherry (see Prunus), but Prunus is an arborescent plant with woody bark, whereas Phytolacca is herbaceous.
SPECIES OF ANIMALS AFFECTED: Any class could be affected; however, the plant stem, leaves. and berries are unpalatable and therefore are not usually ingested. Pigs may become ill from routing and eating the roots. Humans may be affected if they eat the berries, stems, or roots.
TREATMENT:(11a)(b); (26); peripheral plasmacytosis with potential immunosuppressive properties.
OF INTEREST: Cooked, young, tender leaves and stems are eaten by some people as a pot-herb. These young greens are the "poke salad" of Southern fame. They contain low concentrations of phytolacca toxin which is destroyed by proper cooking. Cooked berries are edible and occasionally used in pies, Phytolacca americana contains mitogens, compounds that can be absorbed through skin abrasions, causing blood abnormalities. Sensitive individuals should handle pokeweed with gloves. Root preparations have been used as a folk-medicinal, a practice than can be dangerous.