This morning Tim and I were trying to remember what triggered our intense interest in native plants and restoring the local ecosystem. There is one moment that comes to mind for me. We were walking through Longwood Gardens’ Meadow Garden last summer, admiring the beauty of the whole landscape rather than attempting to identify the specific plants that together create it.
At least that’s what I was doing. That, and obsessing over the fact that our newborn daughter’s skin might be exposed to the sun. (Which is how I spent approximately 35% of the Summer of 2015.)
We stopped at the Webb Farmhouse to feed the baby and take a break from the sun, and browsed the galleries inside. And that’s where I found it: A photo of American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a plant we’d found and tried to remove from the perimeter of our backyard.
“Wait, that’s supposed to be there? That’s supposed to be there!” A little light flashed on in my brain and so grew my interest in what else belonged in our backyard. It was a little bit of a struggle at first to convince Tim not to replace the plants growing along the one side of our property with some other, nicer, more exciting varieties of natives. Now that we’ve removed a large portion of our lawn, I’m seeing them pop up all over the far back area of it. Our plan is to allow them to grow, but control them just enough to make room for other plants.
A few fun facts about American Pokeberry:
- The berries are a food source for songbirds and other bird species, along with other animals like foxes and opossums.
- The plant serves as a common side dish in Appalachian culture, and is still cooked (at least three times) and eaten by the most daring foragers among us.
- Indians and early settlers used the root in poultices and certain drugs for skin diseases and rheumatism (wiki)
- The mature berries of the plant might even have a role to play in the solar industry, “used to coat fiber-based solar cells, increasing their efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity” according to this amazing source of info on the plant.
It’s also highly toxic when raw. Recently I saw a fellow mom post a picture of the berries of a pokeberry plant to our local mommy group on Facebook, and the overwhelming response was, “Rip them out!” More on this later, but my approach is to keep it growing, watch Mae closely in the yard and teach her about not eating it as soon as that’s a lesson she’s ready for.
Either way, I think I’ll always think of that first discovery when I come across a pokeberry plant in the wild. Not just because it reminds me of the start of my more conscious love of native gardening, but also because that moment at Longwood proved just how fun it can be to notice and learn about nature’s details. It makes every walk more exciting.
I’ll leave you with this footage of Tony Joe White on the Johnny Cash Show singing about the very berry featured in this post. Do yourself a favor and watch it.