Flora and Fauna Fridays
A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
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.” 🙂
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.