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Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch? What You Need to Know


by Bryan Mckenzie


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Pokeweed is a Native American plant known for its vibrant purple berries and potential toxicity. However, the true nature of this plant’s danger can be confusing. Many people wonder, “Is pokeweed poisonous to touch?” and what precautions should be taken when dealing with it.

This article will provide a comprehensive guide to understanding pokeweed’s toxicity and offer tips on how to safely handle the plant. Whether you’re an avid gardener, hiker, or simply curious about this intriguing plant, read on to discover what you need to know about pokeweed.

What is Pokeweed?

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), also known as pokeberry or inkberry, is a large herbaceous plant that can grow up to 10 feet tall. It is native to North America and can be found in many parts of the United States. The plant has a long and interesting history of medicinal and culinary use by indigenous peoples.

Today, pokeweed is still used in traditional medicine, but it is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. Its most recognizable feature is its clusters of deep purple berries that mature in late summer. While the plant has numerous uses, it’s also important to understand the potential dangers it poses and how to handle it safely.


Pokeweed Plant Description

Pokeweed is a fascinating plant known for its size and growth habits. It can reach up to 10 feet in height and spreads out through a thick, fleshy taproot. The leaves are large, simple, and alternate, ranging from 4-12 inches in length, and are a vibrant green color. The stem is also thick and fleshy, often with a reddish tint that intensifies as the plant matures. The flowers of the pokeweed are small, white, and collected in long, droopy clusters.

The fruit of the pokeweed is most recognizable; it is a large, juicy berry about the size of a pea and colored with a deep purple hue. Each berry is filled with numerous seeds that help the plant spread throughout the environment. While the plant is impressive in its size and structure, it’s crucial to protect yourself from the potential hazards connected with it. In the following sections, we will explore the toxicity of the pokeweed plant and the precautions you must take when getting involved with it.

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Uses of Pokeweed

Pokeweed has a long history of use in traditional medicine. It’s rich in vitamins A and C and minerals such as calcium and iron. Native American tribes used various parts of the plant to treat a wide range of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and venereal diseases. Here are some reported uses of pokeweed:

  • Medicinal: Pokeweed was used as a poultice to treat skin infections, boils, and wounds. Infusions made from the plant’s leaves and roots were used to treat rheumatism, arthritis, and joint pain.
  • Dyes: The plant’s berries have been used to make dyes for textiles, including shades of pink, red, and purple.
  • Culinary: Young shoots of pokeweed can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable, and the leaves can be used in salads. However, it’s important to note that the plant is potentially toxic and requires careful preparation.
  • Ornamental: Many people grow pokeweed as an ornamental plant in their gardens due to its striking berries and large leaves.

While pokeweed has many uses, it’s important to understand the potential dangers it poses and how to handle it safely.

Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch?

Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch

Many people wonder if pokeweed is poisonous to touch, and the answer is somewhat complex. While touching the plant itself is generally not harmful, it is important to avoid contact with its sap and mature berries, which both contain toxic compounds. The primary toxin in pokeweed is a protein called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP), which can cause severe gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms if ingested.

Additionally, the berries can pose a choking hazard and their intense pigment can stain skin and clothing. Symptoms of pokeweed toxicity can range from mild nausea and vomiting to more serious conditions such as seizures and respiratory failure. It’s essential to understand the risks of exposure and take appropriate precautions when dealing with pokeweed, including protective gloves and clothing.

Understanding Pokeweed Toxicity

  • Pokeweed toxicity comes from several compounds found throughout the plant, especially in its leaves, roots, and unripe berries.
  • The primary toxic agent in pokeweed is a protein called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP). This protein interferes with the synthesis of new proteins, which can lead to cell death.
  • The concentration of PAP is highest in the root, decreasing as it moves toward the leaves and unripe berries. As the berries ripen, the concentration of PAP decreases, and the berries become less toxic.
  • The severity of pokeweed toxicity varies depending on the amount and method of exposure. Ingestion of large amounts of the plant can cause serious symptoms, while skin contact or inhalation of dust from the plant can cause milder effects.
  • Individuals with weakened immune systems or preexisting health conditions should be especially cautious when handling pokeweed, as they may be at greater risk of adverse effects.
  • The best way to avoid pokeweed toxicity is to take precautions when handling the plant, wearing gloves and protective clothing, and washing up thoroughly after exposure. If ingestion is suspected, seek medical attention immediately.

Symptoms of Pokeweed Poisoning

Symptoms of Pokeweed Poisoning can vary depending on the level of exposure and the severity of the poisoning, but can include the following:

  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Eating pokeweed can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea.
  • Cardiovascular Symptoms: Pokeweed poisoning can cause irregular heartbeat or heart block, leading to cardiac arrest or even death.
  • Neurological Symptoms: In severe cases, pokeweed poisoning can affect the nervous system, leading to tremors, convulsions, or seizures.
  • Respiratory Issues: Exposure to pokeweed can cause respiratory symptoms like difficulty breathing, especially when the plant is burned.
  • Eye and Skin Irritation: Touching pokeweed can cause skin irritation, itching, and redness. If pokeweed sap gets into the eyes, it can cause eye irritation and redness.

These symptoms vary in severity and can be life-threatening in some cases. If anyone experiences the above symptoms after being exposed to pokeweed, seek medical attention immediately. It’s essential to know how to handle pokeweed safely to avoid these adverse effects and minimize the risk of poisoning.

How to Deal with Pokeweed Safely

When dealing with pokeweed, it’s important to take precautions to protect yourself and others. The safest way to deal with pokeweed is to wear gloves and clothing that covers the skin completely. If you need to remove pokeweed from your garden, be sure to dig up the entire root system to prevent regrowth.

It’s also a good idea to discard the plant in a sealed plastic bag to prevent its spread. If you come into contact with pokeweed sap or berries, wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water. If you experience any symptoms of poisoning, seek medical attention immediately. Remember that pokeweed is a beautiful plant, but it should be handled with care and caution.

Ways to Get Rid of Pokeweed

One way to get rid of pokeweed is to physically uproot it or cut it down. This method is best done when the plants are still small and have shallow roots. For larger plants, it may be necessary to dig around the root system and cut off the taproot to prevent it from regenerating. However, it’s important to wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid skin contact with the plant’s sap. Another option is to use herbicides specifically designed to kill pokeweed.

Glyphosate and triclopyr are commonly used herbicides that can be effective in killing the plant. It’s important to follow the instructions carefully and avoid spraying the chemicals near desirable plants or water sources. If the infestation is particularly severe, it may be necessary to enlist the help of a professional landscaping or pest control service. They can assess the situation and provide advice on the best course of action. Preventative measures can also be taken to discourage the growth of pokeweed. Regular weeding and general garden maintenance can help prevent the growth of the plant.

Additionally, mulching around desirable plants can help prevent the spread of pokeweed through its seeds. It’s important to note that simply cutting or mowing pokeweed will not necessarily kill the plant. In fact, it may promote regrowth and spread of the plant. Proper handling and disposal of removed plants are also important to prevent accidental spread and contamination.

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Precautions to Take when Dealing with Pokeweed

When dealing with pokeweed, it is crucial to take proper precautions to protect yourself and others. Here are some important steps to follow:

  • Wear protective clothing: When handling pokeweed, it’s best to wear long sleeves and pants, gloves, and closed-toe shoes. This will help prevent the plant’s toxic chemicals from coming into contact with your skin.
  • Don’t touch your face: Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth while you are dealing with pokeweed to avoid accidentally ingesting its toxins.
  • Don’t burn pokeweed: Burning pokeweed releases toxic chemicals into the air, which can be harmful to you and anyone in the vicinity. Instead, dispose of the plant by double-bagging it and throwing it away in the trash.
  • Wash your hands: After handling pokeweed, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. This will help remove any toxins that may be on your skin.
  • Teach children about pokeweed: Children may be drawn to pokeweed’s bright berries, which can be dangerous if ingested. It’s important to teach children not to touch or eat the berries and to seek adult help if they come into contact with the plant.
  • Dispose of pokeweed properly: If you need to remove pokeweed from your yard, it’s important to dispose of it properly. Double-bag the plant and throw it away in the trash. Do not place it in compost or in an area where pets or wildlife may come into contact with it.

By taking these precautions, you can safely deal with pokeweed without putting yourself or others at risk.


In conclusion, pokeweed is a fascinating and versatile plant that has captured the attention of many people. Its vibrant berries, medicinal properties, and ornamental value make it a popular choice for many gardeners and herbalists.

However, it’s crucial to understand that pokeweed can also be toxic and cause serious health issues. It’s essential to take the necessary precautions when handling the plant to avoid any mishaps. If you do decide to cultivate pokeweed, make sure to research the appropriate methods for handling it safely.

Remember, just because a plant has a variety of benefits doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. Knowledge and proper handling are key to a healthy and successful relationship with pokeweed. Finally, if you have any doubts or concerns about the toxicity of pokeweed, it’s always best to consult a medical professional or expert before handling it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous?

The entire pokeweed plant is poisonous, including the leaves, stems, roots, and berries.

Can touch pokeweed cause poisoning?

While the toxicity of pokeweed is primarily concentrated in its roots, leaves, and berries, it’s still possible to experience skin irritation or an allergic reaction from touching any part of the plant.

Is pokeweed edible?

Yes, the young shoots and leaves of pokeweed can be consumed if properly cooked. However, it’s important to note that the plant contains toxins that can cause illness if not prepared correctly.

Can pokeweed be used in traditional medicine?

Yes, pokeweed has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including arthritis and rheumatism.

Can pokeweed be grown in a garden?

Yes, pokeweed can be grown in a garden as an ornamental plant, but it’s important to handle it with care to avoid potential toxicity issues.

What is the best way to get rid of pokeweed?

The most effective way to get rid of pokeweed is to manually remove it by pulling the entire plant, including the roots, out of the ground. It’s essential to wear protective clothing and gloves to avoid coming into contact with the plant.

Can animals consume pokeweed without experiencing toxicity?

Some animals, such as birds and deer, can consume pokeweed without experiencing toxicity since their digestive systems can break down the toxins. However, other animals, such as dogs and cats, can experience severe illness or even death from eating pokeweed berries.

Are there any benefits to growing pokeweed?

Yes, pokeweed can attract birds and other wildlife to your garden, provide a natural food source, and add aesthetic value with its striking purple berries.

Can pokeweed be used to dye fabrics?

Yes, the berries of the pokeweed plant can be used to create a natural dye that produces a vibrant purple hue.

What should I do if I suspect pokeweed poisoning?

If you suspect pokeweed poisoning, seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and treatment may involve inducing vomiting, administering activated charcoal, or hospitalization.


Bryan Mckenzie
Hi there — my name is Bryan McKenzie. Before I’d got into gardening, I worked as a landscape designer at landscape design and consultation company in Jacksonville. I enjoy sharing the vast gardening experience I’ve accumulated throughout the years with like-minded green thumbs. Read more about me and my wife.
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