Pokeweed for the birds

Pokeweed is poisonous. A recent article in our local newspaper cautioned people about pokeweed. Its berries, its leaves, its stems, its roots, according to the article, are all poisonous.

Pokeweed is easy to recognize, when it’s grown. It’s tall, four feet high or higher, its leaves are large and without teeth or serrations, its berries, each on a short stem and together on one longer, larger stem, are deep purple, almost black, and the main stems or stalks of the plant are dark reddish-purple. Those stems are a give-away. But, unfortunately with regard to identification, when the plant is smaller, when it’s growing, the stems are green.

Pokeweed, pokeberry, poke, this is a plant of many names, scoke, redweed, inkberry, pigeonberry. “The History and Folklore of American Wildflowers” by Timothy Coffey lists 30 names for this plant. An early name for it, according to Coffey, was pocan, an Algonquian Indian name meaning bloody and referring, not to the color of the stems when mature, but to the red juice. Pocan, Coffey wrote, was shortened to poke and changed into pokeweed, cocum, and pokum.

Pokeweed, as I have always known it, is poisonous. But it was also once used as a medicine. Skoke berries and rum were prescribed to cure a pain in the chest. A tincture made from the ripe berries or a mixture of the juice from the berries and brandy or wine was a remedy for rheumatism. A herbal published in 1853 classified poke as “emetic, cathartic, alterative, antiherpetic, and somewhat narcotic.”

Pokeweed was also eaten. Deliberately and without ill effects. Young shoots, cooked thoroughly, are described as similar to asparagus. The berries, presumably also well cooked, were used to make pies. Well cooked, I read, meant cooked in boiling water, draining and getting fresh water twice, for fifteen minutes or more.

We haven’t let the pokeweed grow in our flowerbeds in order to sample it as a wild food. Nor are we going to try its curative power for rheumatism, or chest pain if we ever experience that. We left it for the birds, of course.

It would be interesting to know if the common name pigeonberry came from seeing passenger pigeons feasting on the berries but I have not found any reference to pokeweed and passenger pigeons. However in “American Wildlife and Plants” by Alexander C. Martin, Herbert S. Zim and Arnold L. Nelson it is called an important food for mourning doves. It is also eaten by many song birds.  Martin, Zim and Nelson list 31 including bluebird, cardinal, catbird, mockingbird, robin and brown thrasher. In Texas, I read, mockingbirds are seen feeding on pokeweed berries so commonly that the plant is sometimes called the mockingbird plant.

So we let the pokeweed grow in our flowerbeds. It seems only fair. Birds, after all, must have brought pokeweed to us. They eat the berries and pass the seeds, dropping them from branches where they perch. There is a tree with branches overhanging each of our flowerbeds where pokeweed grows.

There is a downside to birds feeding on pokeweed.  From Martin, Zim and Nelson, “Birds have been reported becoming intoxicated from eating pokeweed berries.” I haven’t seen any drunken robins or cardinals or other birds staggering about our yard but if I do I’ll know the cause.

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