Its stick season here in northern New England. The short period in late fall when all of the colorful leaves have fallen, yet there is no snow brightening the land. It can be, well, rather brown and drab after such a show of fall colors. It’s a let down. But it is during these times that little pieces of the world have gone unnoticed to my eye. And this week, I finally noticed American Pokeweed or Inkberry. Also know to the botanists as Phytolacca americana.
I spied these plants laden with deep purple berries while walking along the edge of a field full of pumpkins on the floodplain of the Connecticut River. The American Robins and the White-throated Sparrows fluttered about them pulling berries from the raceme and leaving purple droppings filled with seeds behind.
Poke is thought to be derived from the Algonquian Indian word “pakon” or “puccoon,” referring to a dye plant used for staining. Some still use the berries to stain wood a red tone. The color is caused by betalains, a class of purple pigments that also colors beets purple. Inkberry is perennial, dying back to just its roots each winter, and can grow up to nine feet tall with large, alternate leaves and a carrot-like taproot.
The plant holds a host of interesting toxic compounds, many of them named for the plant – phytolaccatoxin and related triterpene saponins, alkaloid phytolaccin, various histamines, and oxalic acid. These active ingredients made it a popular plant for traditional remedies of a variety of ailments.
Today, it is known for Pokeweed Antiviral Protein (PAP) and has been under investigated for use as a therapy for several types of cancer as well as against the viruses that cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Most AIDS therapy attempts to inhibit the functioning of specific virus components, but PAP prevents formation of the virus. Research continutes, but it may also help fight other virus such as hepatitis C and the common cold.
But it can also be a dangerous plant. The root, older leaves and seeds can be toxic. Accidental Pokeweed poisonings were common during the 19th century. Symptoms of poke poisoning include sweating, burning of the mouth and throat, severe gastritis, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, blurred vision, elevated white-blood-cell counts, and unconsciousness.
Saponins in the plant are lethal to some mollusk and have been proposed as a control for the invasive zebra mussel as well as the mollusk that is the host for schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by group of tremotode worms.
I am planting a few of these handsome bushes along the woods edge in my backyard for the birds next spring, but you do have to be careful as it spreads easily. Here in its native habitat, that isn’t much of a problem, but elsewhere it may be. It can be a very invasive weed in southern California gardens and difficult to eradicate.