A poke in the eye

by James Alexander-Sinclair

One of the best looking plants in my garden this week is the Pokeweed. The spectacular berries are the shape of turbans and change in colour from bean green to burnished Ribena.

Phytolacca americanaOne of the best looking plants in my garden this week is the Pokeweed or Phytolacca americana. It is always interesting when plants that are noxious weeds in some parts of the world are regarded as something interesting and unusual in others. For example Agapanthus are a weed in South Africa while in America they expend considerable energy in trying to eradicate this plant: over here we buy them both for £8.50 in garden centres.

I first came across Phytolacca about five years ago in a garden I had recently planted up; the clients went off to visit a garden somewhere and came back with three - as one does. Very few gardeners are disciplined enough to resist the temptation of a new plant even if there is no space left in the garden: maybe St Fiacre (Patron Saint of Gardeners) never impulse shopped in nurseries. I had not seen the plant before, all I knew was that it was quite large and had been planted in the middle of my carefully planned flower bed. Hmmmm...some designers would have thrown a bit of of a wobbly fit but, what the hell: it's their garden so who am I to object? (Except when I found that another client of mine had installed a concrete Charlie Dimmock in the border - but that is another much grizzlier story not totally suitable for a family audience).

Since then I have used it a lot - especially in slightly shady corners. The insignificant flowers are a pretty insipid pink, and the leaves - though abundant - are never going to inspire sonnets but in October the whole plant is transformed and comes alive. This is because the stems are suffused with a blush of red and the berries are truly spectacular. They are the shape of turbans and gradually transform themselves from bean green to the colour of burnished Ribena. Sadly they are poisonous so should not be eaten unless, as in Native American culture, you feel the need of a spectacular purgative in order to expel any loitering bad spirits. The leaves are sometimes eaten in the Deep South of the USA - where they are boiled three times in clean water so probably still a bit risky!

A great plant for the edge of a woodland or a large border although it does tend to seed itself in inappropriate places. The American Constitution was written in ink made from the berries of Pokeweed.

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Gardeners' World Web User 01/11/2007 at 12:51

It's only the *very young* leaves and *very young* shoots that are eaten. It is my understanding that older leaves and shoots are definitely toxic. Pat Meadows - who lives and gardens in the USA, but not in the South.

Gardeners' World Web User 01/11/2007 at 18:54

They sound wonderful. Anything this dangerous has to go in my garden. Where can I get one?

Gardeners' World Web User 04/11/2007 at 07:09

I first saw Pokeweed in Ford Abbey Gardens, Somerset & then again at Spetchley Park (nr Worcester) where I bought some seeds which I have yet to sow! The berries are definitely very striking & I look forward to growing it.

Gardeners' World Web User 05/11/2007 at 16:20

The plants should be relatively easy to find - check the RHS Plantfinder for a nearby nursery - there are about thirty listed in my copy. There are lots of other dangerous plants: I will return to the subject in the not too distant future...

Gardeners' World Web User 06/11/2007 at 19:39

Thank you for sorting out my questions about this plant! My husband and I had a lovely autumn walk the other day along the river Thouet by Saumur in the Loire Valley, where we have just moved. I saw this stunning plant growing wild along the path and had to pick some seeds. Had not yet had time to find out what it was, but now I will look forward to see what happens in spring.

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