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HerbaceousSpecies Plant

Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana

The pokeweed, pokeberry, poke root, poke, simply poke, pigeonberry, inkberry, redweed and other names (Phytolacca americana L.) is a herbaceous species belonging to the Phytolaccaceae family

Systematics –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Plantae,
Magnoliophyta division,
Class Magnoliopsida,
Subclass Caryophyllidae,
Order Caryophyllales,
Phytolaccaceae family,
Genus Phytolacca,
P. americana species.
The terms are synonyms:
– Phytolacca americana var. lancifolia H.Walter;
– Phytolacca decandra L.
– Phytolacca vulgaris Bubani, nom. illeg.;
– Phytolacca vulgaris Crantz.
The following varieties are recognized within this species:
– Phytolacca americana var. americana Linnaeus;
– Phytolacca americana var. huadongensis X.H.Li;
– Phytolacca americana var. rigida (Small) Caulkins & R.E.Wyatt.

Etymology –
The term Phytolacca comes from the Greek φυτόν phytόn plant and from the Hindu lakh, a dye extracted from an insect which provides a tint similar to the purplish one of the juice contained in the berries.
The specific American epithet was given due to its origin in the Americas.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Phytolacca americana is a plant native to an area between the United States and eastern Canada and has spread to other areas such as: South America, Europe, China and southeastern Asia, eastern Australia, southern Africa and others areas, such as in Japan and New Zealand.
In many areas it has become an invasive neophyte plant and today it is cultivated in southern Europe as a garden plant and widely naturalized and weed throughout Italy.
Its habitat is that of soils rich in humidity in clearings, at the edges of woods and along roadsides; in detail, it is found on uncultivated land in fields, gardens, roadsides, banks of watercourses, railway embankments, ruderal environments, on fresh and humus-rich soils, below the lower montane belt, up to 1,400 m . a.s.l..

Description –
Phytolacca americana is a large perennial herbaceous plant that can grow up to 2.5 meters in height, even over the course of a summer, but usually grows between 1.2 and 2 meters.
The plant has a white and fleshy tap root, from which an erect central stem grows which then orients itself in an enlarged horizontal shape following the weight of the berries; the individual branches are robust, smooth and vary in color from green to purplish.
The plant must be a few years old before the root grows large enough to support this size. This tap root grows deep and spreads horizontally with a fair number of rootlets. The cross-cut root slices show concentric rings.
The leaves are entire and simple with long petioles and arranged alternately along the stem. The leaves can reach 41 centimeters in length and are medium green in color and smooth, with a distinct odor that many describe as unpleasant.
The flowers have 5 regular parts with erect stamens and are up to 5 millimeters wide; they have white petal-like sepals placed on white pedicels and peduncles forming an upright or drooping raceme; these darken as the plant bears fruit. Blooms first appear in early summer and continue through early fall.
The fruit is a schizocarp bacchar (Spjut) with 10 indehiscent and fleshy fruitlets which, when ripe, form a single globose fruit, with a diameter of 8-10 mm, glossy, black-purple with an indistinct berry-like endocarp.
The seeds are 10, about 3 mm, sub-reniform, compressed, shiny and black.

Cultivation –
Phytolacca americana is a perennial plant that is harvested from the wild for local use as a food, medicine and source of materials.
It is an easily cultivable plant, which grows in most soils, although it prefers a soil that retains humidity in a sunny or semi-shaded area, even under trees.
It is a very ornamental plant that often self-seems when in a suitable position and has rapid growth.
In the agricultural field it is considered a weed by farmers.
Propagation occurs by seed; the sowing must be done in autumn or spring.
The young seedlings can be placed in individual pots where winter is harsher and protected from the cold.
The transplant is to be done in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts, however it can be sown directly in the open field in spring.
The seeds have a long viability, able to germinate after many years in the ground.
It can be propagated asexually, by division, in early spring or early fall, making sure each section has at least one growth shoot. Larger portions can be planted directly in the open field.

Customs and Traditions –
Phytolacca americana is a plant, all parts of which are toxic to humans and pets. Reports tell us that children are the ones who are most frequently poisoned after consuming the berries. Cases have been known where even a few berries have proved fatal. Intoxication generally occurs 6 hours after ingestion: it is necessary to immediately go to a hospital.
The toxins are found in highest concentration in the root, then in the leaves and stems, and then in the ripe fruit. The plant generally becomes more toxic as it matures, except for the berries, which are dangerous even when green.
If death occurs, it is usually due to respiratory paralysis.
Poisoning by ingesting parts of the plant was common in eastern North America during the 19th century, particularly from the use of tinctures as antirheumatic preparations and from the ingestion of berries and roots that were mistaken for parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, or horseradish.
This plant is known by various common names, depending on where it grows. It is known as pokeweed or also as pokeberry, poke root or, simply poke, pigeonberry, inkberry and redweed, in Anglo-Saxon countries.
In Chinese medicine, it is called chuíxù shānglù (垂序商陸). As a food, it is called poke sallet, or more commonly poke salad, etc.
The plant contains anti-inflammatories, antiviral proteins and substances that influence cell division; the fruit juice was used as a colorant for wine and by the confectionery industry, a use not recommended today because, like the rest of the plant, it has purgative properties. Some toxic components can easily cross the skin barrier causing contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals.
For this reason it is strongly recommended that people wear gloves when handling the plant.
Research with humans has also shown that this plant can cause mutations (which can lead to cancer) and birth defects.
The leaves of this plant are poisonous although the toxins develop as the plants age.
Even the seeds and the root contain toxic principles and the sap of the plants can cause dermatitis in sensitive people.
However, the plant has, in some areas, edible uses.
The leaves need to be cooked and even then it is best to change the water at least once. In spring and early summer, shoots and leaves (but not the root) are edible after cooking, but later become deadly as well.
However, only the young leaves should be used as they become toxic with age but it is best avoided and caution is advised.
Even the young shoots were eaten cooked.
The shoots are sometimes blanched before use.
The tender pale inner portion of the stalk can be rolled in cornmeal and fried.
This plant is grown on a small scale in North America for its shoots.
The fruits are also eaten cooked and used in pies.
Raw they are poisonous and cause vomiting and diarrhea. Even cooked fruits should be taken with great caution.
From the fruits a red dye is obtained which is used as a food coloring.
Phytolacca americana has a long history of medicinal use, traditionally being used to treat diseases related to a compromised immune system. The plant has an interesting chemistry and has been studied since 1995 as a potential anti-AIDS drug.
As mentioned, it contains powerful anti-inflammatory agents, antiviral proteins and substances that influence cell division. These compounds are toxic to many organisms.
Medical use should be followed by a specialist as all parts of the plant are toxic and an excess causes diarrhea and vomiting and, in any case, it should not be prescribed to pregnant women.
The root is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory, cathartic, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic and purgative.
The dried root is used as an anodyne and anti-inflammatory.
This is taken internally in the treatment of autoimmune diseases (especially rheumatoid arthritis), tonsillitis, mumps, glandular fever and other ailments involving swollen glands, chronic catarrh, bronchitis, etc.
The fresh root is used as a poultice on bruises, rheumatic pains, etc., while a washing obtained from the roots is applied on swellings and sprains.
The fruit has a similar but milder action to the roots.
The juice is used in the treatment of cancer, hemorrhoids and tremors.
A tea made from the fruit is used in the treatment of rheumatism, dysentery, etc.
The high potassium content and the ashes, which contain over 45% caustic potash, have been used as a balm for ulcers and cancerous growths.
The leaves are cathartic, emetic and expectorant.
A homeopathic remedy is obtained from the fresh root and its main action is on the throat, breasts, muscle tissues and joints.
Among other uses, it should be remembered that a red ink and a dye are obtained from the fruit, of a beautiful color, even if not very permanent.
The roots are rich in saponins and can be used as a soap substitute.
These are cut into small pieces and boiled in boiling water to obtain soap.
From an ecological point of view, however, it should be remembered that P. americana is an important plant for birdlife. In fact, birds are unaffected by the poisons in the berries and eat them, dispersing the seeds. The berries are said to be a good food source for songbirds and other bird species and small animals that are unaffected by its toxins. Distribution via birds is thought to be responsible for the emergence of isolated plants in otherwise barren areas.
Among the birds that feed on the berries of this plant we mention:
– Dumetella carolinensis, Mimus polyglottos, Cardinalis cardinals, Toxostoma rufum and others such as the Zenaida macroura and the Bombycilla cedrorum.
Small mammals apparently tolerant of its toxins include the raccoon, opossum, red and gray fox, and white-footed mouse.
Furthermore, this plant is a source of food for some species of lepidoptera such as the Hypercompe scribonia moth.
The plant is not palatable to most animals and is avoided unless otherwise available or is present in contaminated hay, but horses, sheep and cattle have poisoned themselves by eating fresh leaves or green forage and pigs by eating the roots.

Method of Preparation –
Phytolacca americana is a plant that has a long history of uses both in the food and medicinal fields even if it has caused frequent poisoning, especially for unwary people and children.
The root is harvested in autumn and can be dried for later use while the young leaves must be cooked, taking care to change the cooking water several times.
Even the young shoots were eaten cooked.
The shoots are sometimes blanched before use.
The soft, light-colored inner part of the stem can be used in cornmeal and fried.
The fruits are also eaten cooked and used in pies.
From the fruits a red dye is obtained which is used as a food coloring.
The fresh root is used as a poultice on bruises, rheumatic pains, etc., while a washing obtained from the roots is applied on swellings and sprains.
A tea made from the fruit is also used in the treatment of rheumatism, dysentery, etc.
Among other uses, it should be remembered that a red ink and a dye are obtained from the fruit, while the roots can be used as a substitute for soap, by cutting them into small pieces and boiling them in boiling water.

Guido Bissanti

– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.

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Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.

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