Phytolacca americana L.



CC = 2
CW = 3
MOC = 64

© SRTurner

Family - Phytolaccaceae

Habit - Perennial forb with stout taproot, which can become massive after several years' growth.

Stems - Ascending, to 3 m, usually branched, stout, glabrous, often reddish-or purplish-tinged.

Phytolacca_americana_stem.jpg Stem and nodes.

© SRTurner

Leaves - Alternate, simple, entire, petiolate. Blades 4-30 cm long, oblong-lanceolate to elliptic or ovate, narrowed or tapered to a sharp point at the tip, narrowed at the base, the margins entire or slightly undulate, glabrous, the midvein sometimes reddish-tinged. Venation expressed abaxially.

Phytolacca_americana_leaf1.jpg Leaf adaxial.

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Phytolacca_americana_leaf2.jpg Leaf abaxial.

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Phytolacca_americana_leaf2a.jpg Leaf abaxial surface.

© SRTurner

Inflorescence - Racemes, terminal or appearing axillary or opposite the leaves, 4-25 cm long, often long-stalked, drooping or arched, glabrous. Pedicels to 1 cm long, 4-angled, tuberculate on angles, subtended by a bract, this to 4 mm long, 1 mm broad, also with two small alternate bracts near the midpoint. Inflorescence axis and pedicels whitish in flower, becoming red in fruit.

Phytolacca_americana_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

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Phytolacca_americana_inflorescence2.jpg Portion of inflorescence.

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Flowers - Actinomorphic, mostly perfect, hypogynous. Calyx of 5 sepals, these 2-3 mm long, ovate to nearly circular, white, sometimes pinkish-tinged, often darkening after flowering. Petals absent. Stamens 10, the anthers attached toward their midpoints. Filaments pinkish-white, 2 mm long, glabrous. Pistil 1 per flower, the ovary superior, green, depressed-globose, consisting of 10 carpels in a ring (visible as lobes), each with 1 locule, the placentation more or less basal. Styles 10, each with a linear stigmatic area along the inner side toward the tip. Ovule 1 per carpel.

Phytolacca_americana_flowers2.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Phytolacca_americana_flowers.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Phytolacca_americana_flower_close_up.jpg Flower.

© DETenaglia

Fruits - Berries 5-10 mm in diameter, depressed-globose, sometimes slightly lobed at maturity, dark reddish purple to nearly black at maturity, usually somewhat shiny, the juice reddish purple. Seeds 10, 2.5-3.5 mm long, ovoid, slightly flattened, the surface smooth, black.

Phytolacca_americana_fruits1.jpg Immature fruits.

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Phytolacca_americana_fruits2.jpg Mature fruits.

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Flowering - May - October.

Habitat - Streambanks, pond margins, bluffs, forest margins, fencerows, pastures, fields, roadsides, railroads, open disturbed areas.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Other info - This familiar species is common across Missouri and most of the eastern half of the continental U.S. It also occurs on much of the U.S. west coast, though it is considered introduced there. The plant is recognized by its large size, fleshy stems which are often reddish when older, and berries so deeply purple in color as to appear nearly black. The flowers lose their sepals and anthers quickly, so plants usually has the appearance of being in fruit.

All parts of the plant are considered toxic to both humans and animals. Nevertheless, young foliage was consumed by both native Americans and pioneers as a vegetable or wild green, a practice which continues today in some parts of the country. Boiling or baking, or cooking with several changes of water, apparently lessens the toxicity of the foliage. However, great caution is advised, as fatal poisoning has occurred from consumption of improperly prepared plant material. Children have been poisoned by eating the berries, which are visually attractive. The toxicity is not well characterized but appears to be caused by several agents, including saponic glycosides.

The intensely colored juice of the berries will stain almost anything it touches, and has been used as a water-soluble dye in handcrafts. This property contributed to the generic epithet Phytolacca, which is derived from the Greek words phyton ("plant") and lacca ("crimson lake"), the latter term referring to the pigment-like properties of the deep purple fruits. Missouri's plants correspond to var. americana. A second form, var. rigida, occurs in a narrow strip along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. It differs in having ascending inflorescences and shorter fruit stalks. Pokeweed is the only member of its genus and family which occurs in Missouri.

Photographs taken in the Ozark Scenic Riverways, Shannon County, MO, 6-24-03 and 6-29-03 (DETenaglia); also at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, MO, 8-25-2007, Busch Wildlife Area, St. Charles County, MO, 7-26-2008, Weldon Spring Conservation Area, St. Charles County, MO, 5-29-2012, near Labadie, Franklin County, MO, 8-07-2016, Busch Greenway / Duckett Creek, St. Charles County, MO, 6-04-2018, Allenton Access, St. Louis County, MO, 8-02-2020, and along the Katy Trail near Dutzow, Warren County, MO, 6-25-2022 (SRTurner).