Enchanting Poison

By Teo Spengler | July 27, 2022
Image by Irina Vodneva
by Teo Spengler
July 27, 2022

It’s called pokeweed (Phytolacca spp.) and it’s the tallest, most toxic plant in my backyard in San Francisco. It’s a toxic and invasive weed. Yet, my pokeweed “tree” is absolutely my favorite ornamental. 

Tall and generous, with lush leaves and deep purple berries on erect racemes, this uninvited guest has enchanted me with its resilience, persistence, and its joy in living. It gets the “best in backyard” vote of all the wild birds who love the berries, and my vote as well. Who can resist its charm?

Pokeweed Tree Arrives

It must have come via a bird’s digestive tract. When I moved into my place in San Francisco, we had no pokeweed plants at all. Then one day these off stalks started shooting up, with double doses of leaves. 

The plants grew fast. I realized from their amazing progress””not unlike Jack’s beanstalk”” that they were probably weeds, so I pulled out a few in the veggie garden before I went to France for a month. I must have missed one, however, in the southwest corner of the backyard.

Joi de Vivre

The pokeweed may be a toxic weed, but it has a unique joi de vivre that you just can’t ignore. When I returned from France, the small shoot in the corner was taller than I was, having made itself comfortable behind the apple tree, wedged up into the corner of the fence. The branches spread wide and soon filled with racemes of small white flowers.

I pulled off a small branch and took it into the San Francisco Botanical Garden one day. I showed it to the curator and asked him what it was. He didn’t know but said he would get back to me. That evening I got an email with one word, followed by an exclamation point: “pokeweed!”

Stunning Invasive Weed

I looked up pokeweed on the computer and found that it was an invasive weed and that all parts of it were toxic, especially the roots. The advice was to take out pokeweed quickly to prevent children from eating the berries and getting sick. I didn’t have any young kids though and the plant was so alive! Its flower quickly began to turn into berries, green berries at first, deepening and ripening to purple so dark that it was almost black.

Yes, I knew that each berry could start a new pokeweed, that they could spread far and wide where they were not wanted. By then I was so under the pokeweed’s spell. I loved the way the dark berry spikes stood upright on the branches, loved how the birds flocked in to eat them, was thrilled to see the tree getting taller and taller– despite the fact that its stem is not woody– until it dwarfed every other fruit tree in the yard.

Research about this plant told a different story. For centuries all parts of the pokeweed were used medicinally by Native Americans and even eaten too. The young leaves were twice boiled, then eaten in salads. Today pokeweed is being studied for potential treatments for cancer and various viral diseases. It is so much more complex than just an invasive weed and, as long as I stay in this house, it will be welcome in my yard.

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