The Wonders of Pokeweed

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana),¬†flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.” ¬† ūüôā

 

The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer¬†Tony Joe White¬†mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.

As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.

Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.

 

 

 

H2O2: Bubbles Without Troubles

Water Wonk Wednesdays! 

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Even the simple act of cleaning can be chemically problematic! This is especially the case for HarborLAB because we plan to reuse “gray water” to nurture orchard trees, fruiting vines, and native plant areas through underground irrigation hoses.

The antibacterial agent triclosan became nearly ubiquitous but ran afoul of regulators because it does little for human health, disrupts the endocrine systems of marine organisms, and encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. Chlorine bleach lasts a long time in our waterways and is toxic at every stage of its existence, emitting pollution in production and forming compounds like dioxin (a carcinogen) with the chemicals it encounters in our estuary. Phosphates can spur algal overgrowth that snuffs out other marine life. Traditional soaps can contain salts, which over time ruin upland soil for plants not evolved to tolerate high salinity.

Here are our recommendations for simple cleaners that will keep soil and water healthy and happy:

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) Solution: Sunshine can fade many stains, and for tougher ones this kissing cousin of water does a great job. Its reaction with the organic compounds of stains — especially the catalase present in living things — breaks chemical bonds and results in molecular oxygen (O2) bubbles that lift particles away. The other product is water.

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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: For simple scrubbing and bathing, the liquid line of this old standard is powerful and safe, according to California-based Ecology Center, which developed a great list of “dos and don’ts” for grey water management.

White Vinegar: You can combine this kitchen staple with hydrogen peroxide and soap to amplify their effectiveness. One trick is to spray surfaces with H2O2 and then white vinegar (acetic acid, or CH3CO2H, made by bacteria) before wiping. The acid neutralizes quickly and leaves no harmful traces. You can soak stained, smelly, and rusty objects in it too.

 

MLK Day and Water

In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life¬†— into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage,¬†the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty.¬†Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.

Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.

HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at edu@harborlab.org with your requests and ideas!

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MLK Jr. Gardens. Raleigh, North Carolina.

HarborLAB Secretary Perry Leung

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Perry Leung, right, with one of our finance crew’s lead volunteers, Fatoumata Magassa.

 

HarborLAB is pleased to announce that volunteer Perry Leung has been elevated to secretary by unanimous vote of the board. Perry is a stellar administrative volunteer, drawing upon his education and experience in business and environmentalism.

“I’m looking forward to serving HarborLAB in the coming year! I’ve been inspired since the start of my engagement with HarborLAB by the amount of positive impact our volunteers have had on the environment and New York and will do my part to make sure we continue to educate and inspire on New York’s waterways,” Perry said.

Perry graduated from NYU Stern School of Business with honors in Economics and Finance before working as a senior manager in global regulatory risk compliance in New York City and Hong Kong. Throughout his demanding career on two continents he’s remained an active¬†and committed grassroots environmental organizer, leading beach cleanups and composting efforts. He also secured a seed grant through the ASHOKA Youth Venture program to start three new Ultimate Frisbee programs in New York City High Schools to engage inner city students in team sports.

All of HarborLAB’s governing documents and financial reports are readily available upon request but Perry is helping Business Manager Katherine Bradford to organize post them for easier sharing. Perry is also spearheading with volunteers Fatoumata Magassa, Ricky Marcello, and Betty Liu much of our outreach for new sponsors and institutional support.

HarborLAB’s¬†bylaws, adopted in 2016, permit volunteers who are not board members to serve as officers. The secretary:

  • Is for the period of one year and will be voted upon at each annual meeting; and
  • Includes these responsibilities:¬†“The Secretary shall keep the minutes of all meetings of the Board in books provided for that purpose. He or she may be responsible for the giving and serving of all notices of the Corporation and shall perform all the duties customarily incident to the office of the Secretary, subject to the control of the Board, and shall perform such other duties as shall from time to time be assigned by the Board.”

Thank you, Perry!