Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poke Weed Berries For Wildlife

Depending on your age, you probably remember the song about Poke Salad Annie recorded by Tony Joe White, and also by Elvis Presley. I never knew this was a real plant until we lived in Alabama where Poke Weed grew. Being in the natural health industry, we learned that this was also a plant that had parts used for medicinal purposes and eventually had some friends who had some growing in their yard.

It wasn't until we left it grow here at Bluebird Cove that I realized how much of a wildlife food it is. I enjoy the plants because they growing so wildly and produce huge amounts of large berries. One of the things I like about Virginia is the many vineyards. There's something about looking at grapes growing that reminds me of Jesus' words telling us that He is the Vine and we are the branches and the branches and fruit will not last without the Vine. Never having lived where I could view grape vines, it's been a delight to pass by vineyards remembering that and other parables that Jesus used to teach us wisdom.

The poke berries hanging down remind me of grapes and I think that's why I delight in having them. They've been dropped into various areas of Bluebird Cove and the deer have enjoyed the leaves and berries, while the birds enjoy only the berries, and they produce so much fruit that there is always plenty to go around.

I didn't know that it was such a wildlife plant since poke berries are toxic to humans. I discovered birds liked the berries when a family of bluebirds landed on the plants outside our breakfast area window and jumped from branch to branch eating till they were full. Apparently the mom bluebird was showing her young one of the Bluebird Cove dining selections. I was so excited since we certainly want bluebirds to feel welcome here at Bluebird Cove.

I did some research on Poke Weed and birds and found that poke berries are also eaten by cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, orioles, mockingbirds and other fruit-eating birds. These plants as they mature can grow up to 10 feet high so they can provide a heavy production of berries.

The flowers don't seem to attract bees or butterflies at all. At least I've not seen them. The flowers are white and very small as you can see from the photo.

Those berries are processed through the birds and may be deposited where you don't want them. We have to remove some seedlings from areas where we don't want Poke Weed growing. The nice thing is that they are easily identified and easy to remove with the young roots not yet anchored in and there are not many of them for the immense amount of berries it provides.

The plant is also known as Inkberry because the berries were boiled and used for dyes. One identifying feature is the deep burgundy color of the main stalk/trunk. The older the plant is the harder and larger the trunk is, and it's very fibrous, almost like bamboo when you trim it.

At the end of the season all we have to do is cut the trunks and branches to the ground and wait for Spring when they will come up again. A most prolific producer of bird food and very little maintenance. They have grown here at Bluebird Cove in sunny areas and those with only a bit of morning sun. It seems to make no difference to their berry production rate. They make it through droughts without any complaints. We've had a very dry year and it's now August after a week of higher than usual temperatures. We like having mainly native plants so when we don't have enough rain, they continue to do well and survive as they would in the wild.

The birds have already been eating them and it's only August. Poke weed has become one of my favorites now that I see how much they provide for wildlife. I like having this "take care of itself" plant at Bluebird Cove.

You can also harvest the young leaves for Spring greens, but only the young ones. Here's a post from a website forum from somebody using them in NC: "In the south, a lot of people eat the greens; I certainly do. They are a little strong-flavored so I usually boil them awhile, pour the water off, and then start again with fresh water and seasonings. Cut them off to the ground when they are quite young and tender, before any berries appear, at about a foot tall or less. They are delicious."

From a USDA map, it appears that Pokeweed can be found in all states except these: NV, ID, SD, ND, WY, MT, UT, CO

PLEASE NOTE: Many parts of this plant are poisonous, so do your homework before attempting to use any.


Anonymous said...

I was readling "Poke Weed Berries for Wildlife" and got a bit worried about the blog.

The foolwing ideas/thoughts are my opinions and what I have experienced from living in the southeast. I am by no means an expert on this - so take this as you will:

Be careful what you read or write on Poke. Pokeweed, (Phytolacca americana L.,) should probably never be called inkberry - as that could confuse it with the inkberry plant (Ilex glabra Inkberry Holly Aquifoliaceae). They do not look alike at all - but people seem so easily confused by simple words. I have never heard Poke called inkberry - at least not by the people who cook it for food.
Also - there was a reference in the blog about a person cooking and eating the leaves - and the strong taste - so the person preparing them cooks them several times. Actually, the plant is poisonous to humans - and if you want to eat the leaves - which taste very bland when done - you must cook them starting with plenty of cold water - and take them to boiling (I do not know how long to boil) - pour off water rinse and start over AT LEAST THREE TIMES so to get rid of the toxins - lest you get sick. Pokeweed is good if handled properly - but the roots can cause skin rashes if handled without gloves - as the plant matures during the year - it becomes too toxic for humans. Stalks can be prepared as food at some early point - but I am not familiar with how it is done safely and would not pretend to suggest doing it to anyone. The berries are toxic.

OK - that is what I know - and have learned from southerners and reading up on the subject.

Take it with a grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

You are so right about the Poke Weed and its attraction of the Blue Birds. I have hundreds of Blue Birds around it here in Warren, Ohio. Other animals seems to really enjoy it also.

Anonymous said...

I have been searching my computer for a photo (and thus name) of the weed I'm fighting in my backyard. I think this is it. Are the trunk and branches very, very red? Mine are. Is my weed a POKE WEED?

My daughter tried to tell me that it's rhubarb (according to her neighbor). Thank goodness I know a little about rhubarb & knew that she was wrong.

That conversation is what sent me searching for the identity. I'm glad she hasn't gotten around to making any pies yet!!!

Donna Watkins said...

Hey Sid,

Glad she didn't make any pies from that poisonous plant. I had to giggle though since I knew you were being funny.

Yes, the trunks are VERY red - kinda burgundy and they get real hard and fibrous as they grow taller.

Anonymous said...

Since pokeweed is so prolific in KY I was referring to Dr. Tom Barnes' book, "Gardening for the Birds," and found no mention of pokeweed. I am aware that birds like it, but understand that this is going to be a difficult year for birds in KY due to drought, and wondered if it provided the nutrition they needed. Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

Poke berries are NOT poisonous. Only the seeds which are very small & hard & quite beautiful.
I started eating them last fall - start with one a day & increased to 20, if you don't have an adverse reaction (never heard of one - but people have different tolerances.
After eating them for a little while arthritis pain less & gout disappeared.
I dried some but not near enough till next fall.

The seeds are black & shiny. And so hard the are almost impossible to break with your teeth. If you swallow them they just pass right thru.

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Anonymous said...

I didn't know hat the plant was called until our neighbor spotted it and asked if she could pick a few leaves. I don't know how she prepared them, but she said they were delicious. I can't ask her as she is eating heavenly Poke leaves now. We moved about 2 miles away and I guess a few Poke seeds came along with us, as we now have a regular jungle. One group of plants are about 10 feet tall an still growing, so I think we'll have enough seeds for the bird. To make sure there is enough we have a dozen or more large sunflowers which the birds gorge on. Oh, we live in Western Missouri near KC.

Anonymous said...

Adding to my earlier post:
I eat the berries raw & the taste grows on you.

While I have never eaten the leaves I am told the first leaves in the spring are used, they are cooked in water 3 times - water being discarded each time - and mixed with eggs - a real treat among the oldtimers around here.

I know of one woman who cured a nasty leg infection - after MD's couldn't - by making a poultice from a mature leaf And applying it to her injury.

To ALL who share our circle, our universe, our love, our trust.
May I always be found worthy.
Gratitude & Thankfulness to All of Us
Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with joy & glory.
Thank you for YOU, ALL!

Anonymous said...

merrily2004 said...
Poke weed is poisonous to goats.

Anonymous said...

Menno Troyer said...
Speaking from personal experience, poke berries are not poisonous if cooked. My mother used to make pies from them every year. She would strain out the seeds, and sweeten with sugar, as the berries have no natural sweetness. Her pokeberry pie was delicious. A word of caution: Eat only a small slice at a time, as the cooked berries do have a laxative effect.

I was always taught that the raw berries were poisonous, but I cannot confirm that.

The young shoots are delicious when boiled. It takes a lot of cuttings to make a mess of poke greens, as they greatly decrease in volume as they cook. You change the water three times to get rid of their natural bitterness. To me, the boiled greens taste like a cross between spinach and asparagus.

Anonymous said...

I recently made tincture of the root and berries.I have taken it in small amounts of 5 drops at a time with no ill effects.I just ate my 1st whole berry,so we'll see.It is supposed to be good for building white blood cells and helping immune function.Some old timers even say it is a cure for cancer.It is being studied as a possible cure for HIV/Aids.I think this plant may be a cure all and the poison aspect has probably been blown way out of proportion.

Anonymous said...

MB said...
Thirty-four years ago, my 3 year old son peed bright red. After investigation, we found he'd eaten a LOT of poke berries. We called poison control & was told they were not poisonous, but could cause some stomach discomfort & diarrhea. He never had a problem. Also, every spring my mother would gather young poke, parboil it then cook it with bacon, onion, salt & pepper. I still enjoy this. My uncle breads young poke stalks, seasons & deep fries them. He said they were delicious. My husband's elderly aunt said they ate poke berries, made poke berry pies & make poke berry wine. Somehow poke has gotten a raw deal when it comes to its reputation!!!

Anonymous said...

Last year I. The conner of our flower garden this plant appeared. I live in Idaho. This year it came back, it is taller then our roof. Also had another plant growing. I pulled that one out. It is loaded with berries. Lived in Oklahoma as a kid,, my mom would send us kids to the canyon to pick Polk Greens. Never saw berries on the plants. She mixed scrambled eggs with it. Very good. I love birds and they planted their food. I have not eaten the berries. I thank it is cool looking. the bush is as tall as my roof on my house.mixed feelings. About eating the berries.

Donna Watkins said...

Our poke weed at the office window has grown up over the roof also, but it's great that it gets cut back to the ground every winter and then begins again the next year. The berries are poisonous for humans and wildlife. Seems the birds are the only ones who can eat them. The deer love the leaves. My husband grew up in Oklahoma City, Altus and lived in Duncan. But his mom was definitely not into wild plants. Didn't even open the drapes on windows and didn't do picnics. Not much on the outdoors :-)

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