Pokeweeds are very tenacious weeds with beautiful purple berries that you have probably encountered in your gardening adventures. But there is something sinister hiding behind this plant’s beauty.
When you encounter one of these weeds, it may be tempting to simply pull it out, but before you do, you need to ask yourself: is pokeweed poisonous to touch?
Pokeweed is toxic to humans, pets, and livestock, especially when the sap touches your bare skin.
Although they may be beautiful, many weeds and harmful plants develop clever defense mechanisms that protect them from outside threats, including us! Luckily, there are ways to deal with pokeweed and its toxins safely.
This article is going to be shedding some light on pokeweed and let you know how to handle it safely.
What is Pokeweed?
Pokeweed is commonly found all over North America, so you may be all too familiar with this pesky weed. But we need to know it a little better before learning about its toxicity.
Let’s take a look at the basics:
|Habitat||Across North America|
|Life span||40 years, perennial|
Pokeweed is a very distinctive plant that grows as a small bush or a tall tree, so it should be very easy to spot when one pops up in your garden.
These plants can grow as tall as 10 feet! They have broad, long leaves, vibrant red/purple stems, and dark purple berries that grow in clusters. They also bloom with tiny little white flowers in the spring and summer.
Although they have a long lifespan, pokeweed prefers temperate climates. To protect themselves, the top of the pokeweed bush will die off in winter. Then when spring comes, it will grow once again and start to fruit and bloom.
Strangely enough, the shoots and leaves are edible for a short period during spring and early summer before they mature and become toxic. They can be eaten in salads, and even stews like you would use collard greens. We do not recommend trying this unless you are a professional or you have been assured that they are in the correct season, as this could have deadly circumstances.
Native Americans traditionally use pokeweed as medicine that acts as a cardiac stimulant and can help treat some cancers. The way to create treatments safely using pokeweed is a technique that has been passed down for many generations.
Pokeweed can be remarkably tenacious because they spread their seeds using birds. The birds eat the berries, and the seeds are spread through the bird’s droppings. This is why you may find yourself dealing with many bushes popping up in different parts of your garden.
Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch?
Pokeweed is poisonous to the touch as the toxins can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin to cause respiratory and digestive issues as well as causing skin rashes.
The sap of the pokeweed contains poisonous toxins, making the entire plant poisonous, from the leaves and stems to the berries and even the tap root!
The berries are the least toxic part of the pokeweed, while the root contains the highest concentration of the toxin. However, we must stress that the whole plant is very toxic.
The substance responsible for this toxicity is phytolaccine proteins. These proteins can be absorbed into the skin and cause respiratory and digestive issues as well as issues on the skin’s surface in the form of painful rashes.
Some lucky people may be able to touch pokeweed without getting any adverse reaction. However, it is impossible to tell if you fall into this category, so we recommend always using gloves when you are handling pokeweed.
Contact with the sap may cause a nasty skin rash that is, luckily, easy to treat. However, consuming any part of the plant can be deadly.
These weeds won’t have any adverse effects on the plants around them. Still, the toxin is poisonous to all mammals, so we recommend removing pokeweed immediately if you have pets that might get into your garden.
What To Do if You Have Touched Pokeweed
Luckily, pokeweed sap is not life-threatening on contact, but you can do a few things to minimize your discomfort.
- Avoid Scratching
We know this is easier said than done but resisting the urge to scratch the rash will make the effects so much less painful.
Scratching will not only irritate the area but also spread the toxin further across the skin, causing the rash to spread.
- Rinse the Area Thoroughly
As soon as you realize you have made contact, you should wash the area with hot soapy water immediately. You can also swab the area with an antibacterial treatment to cleanse the area more thoroughly.
- Apply Topical Cream
As with most rashes, they can be treated using a topical cream of some form. This should soothe the rash and reduce inflammation. You should be able to get this cream at your local drug store.
- Apply Cold Compresses
Cold is a great way to alleviate the symptoms of a skin rash. We suggest applying an ice pack or compress for twenty minutes at a time to reduce the swelling and itching.
Now all there is to do is wait for the rash to go down and determine whether you are going to develop any more severe symptoms.
The rash should dissipate after a few hours, but if it lingers and you experience any digestive or breathing issues, then a visit to the doctor might be on the agenda.
When talking to a professional, make sure you clearly describe the symptoms and maybe even bring a sample with you to the hospital. When taking this sample, be sure to use gardening gloves and seal it safely in a Ziploc bag.
What Happens If You Eat Pokeweed?
So now that you know that even a touch could be harmful, we wanted to add in an additional warning about what can happen if the pokeweed is consumed rather than just touched, just in case the worst-case scenario occurs.
Consuming the leaves, stem, leaves, or root of the pokeweed can cause many concerning symptoms:
- Violent vomiting
- Muscle spasms
- Rapid pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
Pokeweed toxicity will affect any mammal, so both you, you children and any of your pets will be vulnerable to pokeweed toxicity. If you even suspect that a human or pet has eaten pokeweed, you should rinse out the area and get them medical attention as soon as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Is pokeweed a nightshade?
Due to the appearance of the dark purple berries and their toxicity, pokeweed is often mistaken for nightshade. They are separate plants. However, pokeweed is often called American nightshade as a nod to their similarities.
What happens if you eat pokeweed berries?
One study suggests that you would have to eat 45 pounds of pokeberries to poison yourself to the point of death.
This is because the berries are the least poisonous part of the plant. Saying that they will still make you sick and cause you to need medical attention.
We suggest leaving pokeweed berries for the birds to enjoy.
How do I get rid of pokeweed in my yard?
If at all possible, it is recommended to remove pokeweed when it is still young and small rather than having to deal with a larger plant and its large, toxic taproot.
To remove a bush, put on gardening gloves and dig out around the roots. Pull the plant out by the stem and discard it. We don’t suggest adding pokeweed to your compost heap as this may spread the seeds further.
You may also choose to use a herbicide on the pokeweed to kill it off before you remove it.
Now, aren’t you glad you read that before diving in and weeding without protection? We certainly are!
When pokeweed rears its purple head, it can be a nasty pest to deal with, but it is possible to handle safely if you follow our guidance.
The main takeaway from this is that pokeweed is poisonous to the touch and highly toxic when consumed.
We recommend only handling pokeweed with gloved hands and pulling it from your garden as soon as possible. We hope this guide has helped you avoid any nasty rashes in the future.