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Pokeweed's berries are poisonous to humans, but birds love them

All parts of pokeweed are poisonous to humans and 
their pets, but not to wildlife.
All parts of pokeweed are poisonous to humans and their pets, but not to wildlife. MCT

Pokeweed is not exactly a garden lover's favorite plant, but the birds will send you a nice thank-you chirp if you find some corner where it can grow.

Most gardeners don't want pokeweed, in part because of the thick, woody root on mature plants, but it can be quite beautiful and charming, according to Helen Hamilton, president of the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. It grows more than 5 feet tall and branches almost as wide, and its reddish stems carry loose columns of small white or pinkish flowers from July to September. In late summer, drooping clusters bear glossy purple-black berries.

Preferring moist soil, pokeweed, or Phytolacca americana, is found in damp thickets, clearings and roadsides in most states.

If you have curious children or pets, beware, because all parts of this plant are poisonous, especially the roots, seeds and mature stems and leaves. The young, tender leaves can be eaten, but only as thoroughly cooked greens, with two changes of water.

Native Americans found many medicinal uses for the plant, and many folk remedies make use of parts of the plant, Hamilton said. The berry juice was used as a dye by colonists and to improve cheap wine.

Songbirds, foxes, raccoons and opossums eat the berries, apparently immune to the toxic chemicals. Animals help distribute the seeds far and wide. Pokeweed is deer- resistant; the foliage and stems are somewhat toxic and bitter, particularly when mature.

The plant contains a highly toxic chemical that is being investigated for anticancer and anti-HIV potential, Hamilton said.

Learn more about native plants at KNPS.org.