Pokeweed in Michigan - keep or remove?
October 12, 2013 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I live in southern Michigan, and am the new owner of an old garden. The gentleman who owned our house previously was ill for about 2 years before he passed away, so the gardens have been untended for somewhere between 3-5 years. I have 9 pokeberry plants. I think they're pretty, the birds like them, and the neighbor with whom I share the fence likes them fine. I'd like to keep 2-3 of the plants. Am I an idiot for not pulling them all? (Info about kids and pets under the "more inside.)

Because the garden beds were untended, we have weeds. Tons of weeds. I have pulled out hundreds of bittersweet nightshade plants, grape vines, thistles, vinca that's trying to take over the world, poison ivy, we have Virginia creeper that has taken over the fence line, etc. I'm finding lots of lovely plants underneath the weeds, which is great! But I'll be surprised if I go through less than 150 lawn/yard bags by the time I'm done clearing the beds.

The pokeberry plants are along the back fence line, about a half acre away from the house, and quite pretty and the birds love them. We do not have kids, don't plan on having kids, don't plan on getting a dog, and rarely have kids over (and those that do come over are older, well-supervised and live with gardeners, so know to not eat anything from the yard without checking first). The neighbor with whom we share the fence likes the pokeberries fine and has already let me know that she sprays RoundUp along the fence line each spring, although I wonder if she'll keep doing that once I get the beds under control. She also does not have kids and does not plan to have kids.

In any case, I figure if pokeberry was super invasive in my area, I'd have a lot more than 9 plants. I figure I'd have hundreds, just as I have hundreds of the other types of common weeds.

Basically, I'm planning on cutting the plants back to only 2-3. Is there anything that I'm not taking into account? Am I just getting suckered in on good looks and a reputation for bringing in birds?
posted by RogueTech to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is there anything that I'm not taking into account?

The plus of having poke greens in the spring.

posted by 445supermag at 7:54 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like your risk is minimal. And if you've only found plants in one part of your yard, it sounds like the birds are flying elsewhere to poop out the seeds. Lucky you! If it still concerns you, you could call your local poison control center and see if/how many pokeweed related poisonings are reported each year in your area.
posted by auntie maim at 5:50 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I leave pokeweed in my yard, and I eat a variety of wild foods, but eating pokeweed isn't worth the candle. I followed reputable instructions for preparing it (pick before stem is pink, boil through three changes of water) and it still made me ill.

Good luck fixing up your yard!
posted by momus_window at 7:02 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pokeweed is pretty, especially when it matures to that luscious dark purple. If you intend to keep it around your garden, you should know that it is not completely innocuous:

All parts of the plant contain saponins, oxalates, and the alkaloid phytolacine with greatest concentrations in the roots and seeds. Pokeberry also contains a protein lectin, a mitogen that can have wide effects on the immune system. Pokeweed mitogen affects cell division and stimulates B- and T-cell lymphocyte proliferation. The plant should be handled with gloves because the mitogen can be absorbed through cuts and abrasions on the skin.

Depending on the amount of the plant consumed, animals may show mild to severe colic and diarrhea. Fatalities are rare unless large quantities of the plant are consumed...Humans appear to be more severely poisoned by pokeweed and develop mouth irritation, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Death may occur in children eating large amounts of the plant or berries.

I don't know how frequently pokeweed toxicity is seen among children, but it is seldom seen in domestic animals. This is from A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in North America, by Knight and Walter.
posted by Seppaku at 8:11 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am completely biased as we are fighting a running battle with pokeweed, my husband will actually growl if he sees it growing by the side of the road we have been so traumatized by the battle. If you have one small patch of pokeweed and remove the other ground covers you soon will have many large patches of pokeweed as soon as there is no competition they pop up, I suspect the seeds are sitting there waiting for spring.

We were in a similar boat to you trying to reestablish a long over grown garden and cleared out garden beds one fall ready for spring planting, and come spring pokeweed as far as the eye could see. The plants are insidious to get rid of as they have a super long tap root and trying to remove any more than a few inches high will require digging holes, and don't leave any of the tap root behind on larger plants or it will be back with a vengence.

The berries stained our white dog purple, though we no longer let them get tall enough to get berries. There are a lot of nicer less invasive plants, prettier and none poisonous plants that bring in the birds. Oh and cutting it back just makes it mad, OK maybe I joke about that (but maybe I don't). A season of roundup and rototilling finally got the big patch under control, but 2 seasons later we are still digging up multiple pokeweed babies each week, that pop up in our flower beds all summer long.

I live in Northern Indiana, and again make of my reply what you will as I said I am completely biased.
posted by wwax at 8:11 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

So my mom has called me the Poke Queen on occasion, so my answer is going to be a bit biased. Pokeweed is awesome. Everyone should have pokeweed in their yards. Birds love it! I have seen an assortment of birds nibbling away at ours- everything from mockingbirds and cardinals to finches and red-winged blackbirds. It seems like only the "pretty" songbirds like it and the pesky pigeons leave it alone, so that's a plus, too! It only grows in our yard in out of the way, untrod places that we don't plant anything else anyway. We've cultivated it so it grows along our back fence to make the prettiest privacy hedge ever. It grows up tall and shady in the summer and dies back in the fall so you don't have to worry about it getting too shady in the wintertime. For some reason it only grows along the fence, too. Over the years it's gotten a little wider in the area that it covers but we have nothing like a forest of pokeweed. I think it's beautiful, too. The berries make a wonderful dye, which we love as my sister does fibercraft and dyes all of her fiber herself.
Of course, not everyone loves it. It is poisonous- but none of our dogs have ever touched the stuff and no children around here are stupid enough to eat it. Everyone knows you don't eat pokeweed except in the spring and that's only if mama cooked it. There might be a few really dumb kids every once in a while that think it might be cool to taste it, but unless the kids you know make a habit of eating everything they touch I really wouldn't worry about it. And it is hardy- boy, is it hardy. It's almost indestructible. The only way to get rid of it is to pull the tiny plants up completely by the root. If they get big enough that the stem starts to feel hard, it's almost impossible to get rid of them. So if they come up in a place you don't want them, pull them early and often. The root system is basically just one giant taproot that can get as long as thick as your leg. If there's even a little bit of the root left, they'll pop right back up wherever they are.
Some people think they look trashy, but I love them. There's just a strange little charm about them. I wouldn't pull them up or worry about them if I were you. Cherish the pokeweed.
posted by shesaysgo at 9:09 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

An aside, but Virginia creeper is a Michigan native, with lovely fall color and berries the birds like. You could consider leaving it too, when it's not climbing the wrong stuff.
posted by BinGregory at 6:35 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I weeded my garden today and left the pokeweed. It is beautiful, and it is natural. If you like it, and it's not hurting anyone, there's no good reason to get rid of it.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:56 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read wwax's description of rampant pokeweed and thought "Wow it sounds horrible, I wonder where s/he lives, since it's not like that for me in Northwest Indiana. (S/he lives in Northern Indiana!)

I have sandy soil and it's easy to pull the young pokeweed plants. They do not pop up everywhere like many plants I deliberately brought into my yard. Or dandelions. Dandelions in my yard are like the pokeweed of wwax.

If you want to hang laundry outdoors you may have a problem from purple bird-droppings. However, nearby pokeweed or mulberry trees will affect you too, so eradicating it from your yard won't necessarily protect your clothes.

Many plants are poisonous to people or some animals, I wouldn't worry about having pokeweed in the situation you described. As a matter of fact, please consider keeping a few of the nightshade weeds, as nightshades are what the awesome Hawk Moth larva feeds on. If you grow tomatoes and get hornworms, just snip off the branch the hornworm is on (or it will try to stab you), put it on the nightshade weed, and maybe some evening you'll get to see a huge moth!

Virginia creeper can give you a rash like poison ivy, so wear gloves! (And it's beautiful in fall so maybe keep under control the vines that will sneakily return)
posted by Anwan at 10:28 PM on October 14, 2013

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