Be Vigilant To Protect Kids, Pets From Pokeweed

Be Vigilant To Protect Kids, Pets From Pokeweed

Attractive foliage and hanging berries look beautiful but are toxic to humans and domestic pets.

This is the season for farm families to be on the lookout for infestations of common pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) in areas easily accessible to youngsters and pets.

The plant doesn't look poisonous. In fact, just about everything about it is attractive, especially in the fall of the year. But every part of it, from berries to leaves stems and especially root, is toxic.

The weed emerges from spring to early summer, depending on whether it's coming from last year's perennial roots or a seed. It grows into an attractive, bushy plant with succulent red-purple stems and large lance-shaped leaves. Under ideal conditions, pokeweed can look like an exotic, 6- to 10-foot tree by September.

"From July to September, it produces odd flowers -- they don't have petals. But, pokeweed really attracts attention after that. It produces purple-black berries that hang in clusters, sort of like grapes. Birds apparently can eat those berries without harm. People and pets can't," said Ward Upham, K-State Research and Extension horticulturist.

Pokeweed's big tap root is its most poisonous part, Upham said. Its above-ground parts increase in toxicity as they mature. Even so, the leaves and stems are always less poisonous than the roots. The berries are the least toxic of all.

"Infants are particularly sensitive, though, and have died from eating just a few raw berries," he warned. "Older humans' symptoms can include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, drowsiness and difficulty in breathing. How serious their reaction is depends on the person and what that person ate."

While pokeweed's still growing in fall, herbicides can affect it, just as they do dandelions -- which also store up taproot food for winter.

"If kids could come in contact with pokeweed, though, you should cut it down and discard it immediately," Upham said. "You can spray next year before the plant gets large enough to be attractive to children."

The best follow-up to discarding the weed, he added, is to wash hands thoroughly with soap and lots of water -- before touching face, foods, pets or people.

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