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It's the scary season for this invasive plant

Beware: Pokeweed berries are toxic

cluster of pokeweed berries
This cluster of pokeweed berries shows how they look at all stages of ripeness. Unripe ones resemble tiny green pumpkins, but the berries fill out, resembling blueberries, when ripe. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Ghosts, haunted houses, bats and other scary images are in season. But do you know what really makes me shudder? Seeing ripe pokeweed berries at child height.

Cluster of ripe pokeweed berries
Usually pokeweed berries grow in grapelike clusters, but
sometimes they appear in clumps like this.

Those dark purple berries are toxic to humans, dogs, livestock and other mammals. The birds who eat and carry them around, conveniently reseeding the plant, somehow are immune to the poison. Gardeners, you may be growing this plant for a lot of reasons -- it IS pretty, with its white flowers and red stems -- but if it's near where children or dogs walk or play, please reconsider.

American pokeweed ( Phytolacca americana ) is an invasive plant with a long history. It's a native of  eastern and southeastern states that has spread over the years to parts of California, including the Central Valley, according to the UC Integrated Pest Management program, which just last week updated its public information page on pokeweed.

"Pokeweed is found in riparian areas, oak woodlands, forest edges, fence rows, forest openings, pastures, under power lines, disturbed areas, vineyards, orchards, cultivated fields, parks, and ornamental landscape," the IPM pokeweed page notes. You'll notice that a lot of those sites are hangouts for birds.

The plant has some uses: The berries' juice make wonderful dye, apparently, and also has been used for ink. Historically the leaves were considered edible; one of its alternate names is "poke salad."

But  UC IPM is unequivocal in its warning against consuming any part of this plant:

"Although sometimes eaten, the entire plant is poisonous and should be considered with extreme caution. The leaves and stems of young pokeweed plants can be ingested only after repeated blanching; without proper preparation, pokeweed can cause a variety of symptoms, including death in rare cases."

Pokeweed plant
A single pokeweed plant can produce up to 7,000
seeds annually.

Pokeweed is invasive and a survivor. Its seeds remain viable for up to 50 years, according to the UC IPM page. Once established, it has a long taproot and doesn't require regular water. It dies back after the first frost, then re-sprouts in spring.

Say you've discovered one of these plants in your garden and want to cut it down. First of all, don't put any of it in your compost bin or the green waste container. And wear gloves, since the ripe berries burst easily and stain fingers. Put a large trash bag over the stem with the ripe berries, and then cut the stem so the berries fall into the bag, not on the ground. When you have cut off all the berry clusters, tie the bag and put it in the trash bin. Then dig out the rest of the plant with a shovel, going after the taproot, and discard that, too.

In the spring keep an eye out for new sprouts. As with any invasive weed, the best organic advice is "Just keep digging."

Chemical controls are possible, UC IPM notes, but that's mostly for agricultural eradication; if you're curious, the instructions can be found at the page linked above.

And if a child eats the berries -- stains around the mouth will be a giveaway -- contact Poison Control immediately. There's a poison control for pets , too.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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