Poke Weed Berries for Wildlife
Depending on your age, you probably remember the song about Poke Salad Annie recorded by Tony Joe White, and also by Elvis Presley. I never knew this was a real plant until we lived in Alabama where Poke Weed grew. Being in the natural health industry, we learned that this was also a plant that had parts used for medicinal purposes and eventually had some friends who had some growing in their yard.
It wasn’t until we left it grow here at Bluebird Cove that I realized how much of a wildlife food it is. I enjoy the plants because they growing so wildly and produce huge amounts of large berries. One of the things I like about Virginia is the many vineyards. There’s something about looking at grapes growing that reminds me of Jesus’ words telling us that He is the Vine and we are the branches and the branches and fruit will not last without the Vine. Never having lived where I could view grape vines, it’s been a delight to pass by vineyards remembering that and other parables that Jesus used to teach us wisdom.
The poke berries hanging down remind me of grapes and I think that’s why I delight in having them. They’ve been dropped into various areas of Bluebird Cove and the deer have enjoyed the leaves and berries, while the birds enjoy only the berries, and they produce so much fruit that there is always plenty to go around.
I didn’t know that it was such a wildlife plant since poke berries are toxic to humans. I discovered birds liked the berries when a family of bluebirds landed on the plants outside our breakfast area window and jumped from branch to branch eating till they were full. Apparently the mom bluebird was showing her young one of the Bluebird Cove dining selections. I was so excited since we certainly want bluebirds to feel welcome here at Bluebird Cove.
I did some research on Poke Weed and birds and found that poke berries are also eaten by cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, orioles, mockingbirds and other fruit-eating birds. These plants as they mature can grow up to 10 feet high so they can provide a heavy production of berries.
Those berries are processed through the birds and may be deposited where you don’t want them. We have to remove some seedlings from areas where we don’t want Poke Weed growing. The nice thing is that they are easily identified and easy to remove with the young roots not yet anchored in and there are not many of them for the immense amount of berries it provides.
The plant is also known as Inkberry because the berries were boiled and used for dyes.
At the end of the season all we have to do is cut the trunks and branches to the ground and wait for Spring when they will come up again. A most prolific producer of bird food and very little maintenance. They have grown here at Bluebird Cove in sunny areas and those with only a bit of morning sun. It seems to make no difference to their berry production rate. They make it through droughts without any complaints. We’ve had a very dry year and it’s now August after a week of higher than usual temperatures. We like having mainly native plants so when we don’t have enough rain, they continue to do well and survive as they would in the wild.
The birds have already been eating them and it’s only August. Poke weed has become one of my favorites now that I see how much they provide for wildlife. I like having this “take care of itself” plant at Bluebird Cove.
You can also harvest the young leaves for Spring greens, but only the young ones. Here’s a post from a website forum from somebody using them in NC: “In the south, a lot of people eat the greens; I certainly do. They are a little strong-flavored so I usualy boil them awhile, pour the water off, and then start again with fresh water and seasonings. Cut them off to the ground when they are quite young and tender, before any berries appear, at about a foot tall or less. They are delicious.”
From a USDA map, it appears that Pokeweed can be found in all states except these: NV, ID, SD, ND, WY, MT, UT, CO