Phytolacca americana

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Phytolacca americana
Phyt ame.jpg
Photo by Karan A. Rawlins, University of Georgia,
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta - Flowering plants
Class: Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Phytolaccaceae
Genus: Phytolacca
Species: P. americana
Binomial name
Phytolacca americana
Phyt amer dist.jpg
Natural range of Phytolacca americana from USDA NRCS Plants Database.

Common names: American pokeweed, poke, pokeberry, common pokeweed[1]

Taxonomic notes

Synonyms: Phytolacca americana var. americana[1]

Varieties: none[1]


A description of Phytolacca americana is provided in The Flora of North America. It is a robust, perennial herb that grows 1-3 m tall. The roots are thick and fleshy. The leaves have an alternate pattern, glabrous texture, entire margin, and lanceolate to elliptic shape. They grow 3-12 cm wide and 8-30 cm long with a rounded base. The petioles are 1-5 cm long. Racemes are 5-20 cm with bracteate pedicels. The flowers are perfect, colored green to white, and 2-3 mm long. They include 5 sepals, 5-30 stamens, and a superior ovary. The berries are 5-12 carpellate, purplish-black, 4-6 mm long, and 7-10 mm in diameter. The seeds are lustrous black, 2.5-3 mm long, and flattened.[1]


This plant is an abundant native weed that occurs throughout eastern North America.[1]



P. americana has been found in hydric hammocks, swamp edges, coral limestone, sandbars, mangrove swamps, and floodplain forests.[2] It is also found in disturbed areas including disturbed coastal hammocks, along canals, farmlands, orange groves, landfills, burned longleaf pine-wiregrass flatwoods, pine-hickory camping woods, and along roadsides.[2] Associated species: Sabal, Quercus, Elaphrium, Swietenia, Dalbergia, Gouania, and Schinus.[2]


This plant has been observed to flower from March through November, with peak inflorescence in May through July.[1] [3]

Seed dispersal

P. americana is dispersed primarily by birds that eat the berries and deposit them through defication.[4] It has been found to be dispersed by germinating from the carrion of pigs that ingested it.[5]

Fire ecology

Populations of Phytolacca americana have been known to persist through repeated annual burning.[6]


Phytolacca americana has been observed at the Archbold Biological Station to host bees the bumblebee Bombus impatiens (family Apidae), leafcutting bee Heriades leavitti (family Megachilidae), sweat bees from the Halictidae family Augochlora pura, Augochlorella striata, Augochloropsis metallica, A. sumptuosa, Lasioglossum lepidii, L. miniatulus, L. nymphalis, L. pectoralis, L. placidensis, and L. puteulanum, thread-waisted wasps from the Sphecidae family Ectemnius maculosus, E. rufipes ais, Isodontia exornata, and Oxybelus laetus fulvipes, as well as wasps from the Vespidae family Leptochilus alcolhuus, L. republicanus, Polistes dorsalis hunteri, and Zethus slossonae.[7] Additionally, P. americana has been observed to host bees from the Apidae family such as Apis mellifera and Ceratina dupla, sweat bees from the Halictidae family such as Lasioglossum ephialtum, L. oceanicum, and L. pilosum, and leafhoppers from the Pleosporaceae family such as Cicadellidae sp. and Vespidae sp..[8]

Conservation, cultivation, and restoration

Cultural use, chemistry, and toxicity

Historically, the roots and berry juice was used by native peoples to treat skin cancers, diseases, swelling, and injuries.[9] The root can be extremely toxic and act as a narcotic, emetic, and cathartic if ingested in too large of doses.[10]

People in Appalachia would eat and can the immature leaves of the pokeberry plant[11], and the young shoots can be used an asparagus or spinach substitute. Care must be taken not to harvest mature plants because the bark will be toxic. The berries can also be used as a food coloring in frosting and candy.[12]

Phytolacca americana is poisonous to cattle and sheep, and occasionally is poisonous to horses, goats, and pigs. The entire green plant is toxic, but the roots are more toxic. It is a gastrointestinal irritant. It causes abdominal pain, vomiting, and purging. There may be convulsions and death usually due to respiratory failure. It contains an alkaloid and a substance called phytolascotoxin.[13][14]

Leaves can be eaten as greens, but in the cooking process the water should be changed twice to avoid toxic effects.[13][14]

Photo Gallery

References and notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Weakley, A.S. 2020. Flora of the Southeastern United States. Edition of 20 October 2020. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Florida State University Herbarium Database. URL: Last accessed: June 2021. Collectors: Loran C. Anderson, George R. Cooley, R. J. Eaton, D. L. Fichtner, Robert K. Godfrey, B. K. Holst, O. Lakela, S. W. Leonard, Marc Minno, Grady W. Reinert, Cecil R Slaughter, S. D. Todd, and Jean W. Wooten. States and counties: Florida: Hernando, Indian River, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Manatee, Monroe, Okaloosa, Orange, and Sarasota.
  3. Nelson, G. PanFlora: Plant data for the eastern United States with emphasis on the Southeastern Coastal Plains, Florida, and the Florida Panhandle. Accessed: 19 MAY 2021
  4. Michigan State University Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Biology. Common Pokeweed.
  5. Tomberlin, J. K., Barton, B. T., Lashley, M. A., & Jordan, H. R. (2017). Mass mortality events and the role of necrophagous invertebrates. Current Opinion in Insect Science, 23, 7-12.
  6. Platt, W.J., R. Carter, G. Nelson, W. Baker, S. Hermann, J. Kane, L. Anderson, M. Smith, K. Robertson. 2021. Unpublished species list of Wade Tract old-growth longleaf pine savanna, Thomasville, Georgia.
  7. Deyrup, M.A. and N.D. 2015. Database of observations of Hymenoptera visitations to flowers of plants on Archbold Biological Station, Florida, USA.
  8. [1]
  9. Korchmal, Arnold & Connie. 1973. A Guide to the Medicinal Plants of the United States. The New York Times Book Company, New York.
  10. Fernald, et al. 1958. Edible Plants of Eastern North America. Harper and Row Publishers, New York.
  11. Korchmal, Arnold & Connie. 1973. A Guide to the Medicinal Plants of the United States. The New York Times Book Company, New York.
  12. Fernald, et al. 1958. Edible Plants of Eastern North America. Harper and Row Publishers, New York.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Sperry, O.E., J.W. Dollahite, G.O. Hoffman, and B.J. Camp. 1965. Texas plants poisonous to livestock. Texas A&M University, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Texas Agricultural Extension Service. College Station, Texas.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hardin, J.W. 1961. Poisonous plants of North Carolina. Agricultural Experiment Station, North Carolina State College, Raleigh, North Carolina. Bulletin 414. 128 p.