Plant savvy extends beyond the garden

For many gardeners, part of gardening fun is learning more about ?pop-up? plants, the wild native plants that simply show up in our ditches, woodland borders and other uncultivated spaces.

One of those interesting plants is pokeweed, sometimes known alternatively as poke, poke sallet, poke salad or pokeberry. I?ve seen it by some of those names in books, especially Southern novels. Its range through the U.S. and Canada is extensive, covering pretty much everything except the mountain west.

The variety that we will find here in Iowa grows tall from a tuber-like taproot. A mature plant may rise to between six and 10 feet. The smooth, partially hollow stem will be about two inches in diameter.

Pokeweed leaves are alternate and quite a bit longer than wide. They taper at both ends.

Flowers are carried on racemes, or linear clusters, with each flower on its own short stem. While the flowers are most often white, they may be pinkish or purplish. Each has five sepals and about 10 stamens.

To me, the most distinctive feature of a pokeweed plant is its berries. While small, they are a rich, deep purplish-black.

American pokeweed can be found in open or edge habitats, especially where birds are prone to roost. I find it particularly at the edge of our oak and hickory woodland, but it can certainly show up in pastures and fence rows.

If you need to handle pokeweed, do so with care. The entire plant is poisonous, but especially the berries. So why the name poke salad? Young leaves that are properly cooked are both edible and nutritious and are certainly regarded as a food source in the rural south.

For most of us, the practical value of pokeweed is found in the importance of the berries to wildlife. The fruits are especially valuable to mockingbirds, cardinals and mourning doves.