Pokeweed – today an unwanted plant, in 1776 the ink of freedom

    Okay, fun fact- did you know that the original Declaration of Independence owes its existence to a plant? 

    Editor’s note: With gardening, and weed season now in full swing Nicole has assembled a list of Ground Level’s least wanted weeds in Northwest Philadelphia. The plant below is least wanted area weed number three, and something of an historical celebrity.


    Okay, fun fact- did you know that the original Declaration of Independence owes its existence to a plant?

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    A native of Eastern North America, the berries of pokeweed were used for ink (even on important federal documents) throughout the Colonial era. And during the Civil War, many soldiers wrote letters home using pokeberry ink.

    Right now pokeweed plants here in Northwest Philadelphia are just three or four feet high, and the small white blossoms are giving way to immature green berries. By September the plants will be magisterial six foot behemoths, displaying lanky bright pink stems and hundreds of black-purple berries. The berries are attractive to birds, who then disperse them everywhere to sprout next spring.

    Pokeweed seedlings aren’t hard to pull up, but if they don’t get yanked when they’re little it becomes a different and more challenging game for the gardener to win. The plant forms a long, branching taproot, and this root gets bigger every year the plant is in the ground. Removing a mature plant can require excavating out a fairly large hole to get the whole thing out, since any chunks of root left in the soil will sprout again.

    Unlike most of the other annoying weeds around here, pokeweed has the advantage of being at least somewhat interesting. The plant had multiple uses in early medicine, and the very young stems were eaten in spring by Native Americans. In an 1859 book American Weeds and Useful Plants by William Darlington, it instructs that “The young shoots of this plant afford a good substitute for Asparagus” although the author hastens to add that “the plant is regarded and treated as a weed by all neat farmers.” Weed indeed, Mr. Darlington.


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