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Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana

Phytolacca americana
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Phytolaccaceae
Genus: Phytolacca
Species: P. americana
Binomial name
Phytolacca americana

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a large, shrubby perennial growing up to 10 feet in height native to eastern North America. Also known as American nightshade, cancer jalap, coakum, garget, inkberry, pigeon berry, pocan bush, poke root, pokeweed, redweed, scoke, red ink plant and chui xu shang lu (in Chinese medicine), parts of this plant are highly toxic to livestock and humans, and is considered a major pest plant by farmers. Nonetheless parts of the plant in different stages, can be used as food, medicine or poison. The plant has a large white taproot, green or red stems, and large, simple leaves. White flowers are followed by purple to almost black berries, which are a good food source for songbirds such as Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird.



Plant Type: Perennial herbaceous plant which can reach a height of 10 feet, but is usually under four feet . The stem is often red as the plant matures. Central stem type, with one or more stalks. Plant dies back to roots each winter.

Leaves: The leaves are alternate with coarse texture with moderate porosity. Leaves can reach nine inches in length. Each leaf is entire. Leaves are medium green and smooth with an unpleasant odor.

Flowers: The flowers have 5 regular parts with upright stamens and are up to 0.2 inches wide. They have white petal-like sepals without true petals, on white pedicles and peduncles in an upright or drooping raceme, which darken as the plant fruits. Blooms first appear in early summer and continue into early fall.

Fruit: A shiny dark purple berry held in racemous clusters on pink pedicles with a pink peduncle. Pedicles without berries have a distinctive rounded five part calyx. Berries are pomes, round with a flat indented top and bottom. Immature berries are green, turning white and then blackish purple.

Root: Thick central taproot which grows deep and spreads horizontally. Rapid growth. Tan cortex, white pulp, moderate number of rootlets. Transversely cut root slices show concentric rings. No nitrogen fixation ability.[1] [2]

Habitat and Range

Broadly distributed in fields and waste places. Usually found in edge habitats. Birds which feed on the berries spread the seeds which do not require stratification. Adapted to coarse or fine soils with moderate moisture, high calcium tolerance but low salinity tolerance, PH tolerance from 4.7-8. Grows well in sun or shade and readily survives fire due to its root structure. In recent years the plant appears to have increased in populated places. Found in most of the United States except the Mountain States, Alaska and Hawaii.[3][4]

Known Constituents


Triterpene saponins: Phytolaccoside A,B,C,D,E,F,G (esculentoside E), phytolaccagenin, jaligonic acid, esculentic acid, 3-oxo-30-carbomethoxy-23-norolean-12-en-28-oic acid, esculentic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, oleanolic acid.[7]

Tripertine alcohols: alpha spinasterol, alpha spinasteryl-beta-D-glucoside, 6 palmityl-delta7-stigmasterol-delta-D-glucoside, 6 palmytityl-alpha-spinasteryl-6-D-glucoside

Other: phytolaccatoxin, canthomicrol, astragalin, protein PAP-R, mitogen (a series of glycoproteins), caryophylline, lectins, tannin, starch.

Nutritional Informationper 110 grams dry weight of shoots [8]:

  • Protein: 31g; Fat: 4.8g; Carbohydrate: 44g; Fibre: 0g; Ash: 20.2g;
  • Minerals - Calcium: 631mg; Phosphorus: 524mg; Iron: 20.2mg; Magnesium: 0mg; Sodium: 0mg; Potassium: 0mg; Zinc: 0mg;
  • Vitamins - A: 62mg; Thiamine (B1): 0.95mg; Riboflavin (B2): 3.93mg; Niacin: 14.3mg; B6: 0mg; C: 1619mg;

Standardization:Phytolacca is not generally standardized since it is not marketed to public and various properties are being considered for standardization for different uses. For example Phytolaccoside A,B, C et al. from leaves are being considered for antiviral use and Pokeweed antiviral protein, with subtypes taken from leaves in different seasons for AIDS. Oleanolic acid would be the constituent of choice for standardizing for the purposes of cancer since it is present in an ethanol root extract and has significant anticancer properties, for several types of carcinoma as well as leukemia.[9][10]


Traditional Medicinal uses

Historically used for syphilis, diphtheria, conjunctivitis, cancer, adenitis and emesis or as a purgative.[11] Used topically for scabies. Heroic and toxic class herb which requires professional training.[12]

Tincture of the Root: Alterative, for lymphatic disorders including breast lumps and skin conditions (especially when accompanied by a poultice on the lesions.) Also for arthritis, rheumatism, conjunctivitis, tonsillitis, infectious disease, edema, and cancer.[13] [14] [15]

Root poultice: the root roasted in ashes and mashed is used as a poultice for breast abscesses. Also used for rheumatic pains, and swellings.[16]

Root wash: used for sprains or swellings.

Root infused oil: The freshly dried root can be steeped in oil for breast abscesses and is often used in cancer protocols.[17][18]

Berries: eaten without biting into the toxic seeds for arthritis. One is taken the first day, two the second, up to 7 and back down to one. [19]The berries can also be soaked in water and the water drunk for rheumatism and arthritis. Juice has been topically applied for cancer, hemorrhoids and tremors.[20]

Leaves: Cathartic and purgative.

Ash from plant: Potassium rich, used in cancer salves[21]

Modern Pharmacological Uses

Physiologically, phytolacca acts upon the skin, the glandular structures, especially those of the buccal cavity, throat, sexual system, and very markedly upon the mammary glands. It further acts upon the fibrous and serous tissues, and mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tracts. Phytolacca is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory,antiviral, anti-cancer, expectorant, emetic, cathartic, narcotic, hypnotic,insecticide and purgative.[22][23]

Anti-cancer: The anticancer effects appear to work primarily based upon anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties, along with immune stimulant functions. Additional support for fighting cancer may come from antiplasmodial or cytotoxic fractions of the phytolacca toxin. And, although it has not been confirmed as a cause or factor of cancers, the antimicrobial, antiviral and antithelmetic properties of certain constituents might also play a part in anticancer activity. Further there are aromatase inhibitors and antioxidant properties that may affect cancer.Anti-cancer, anti leukemic or anti-tumor constituents include: ascorbic acid,astragalin, beta carotene, caryophylline, isoquercitin, oleanolic acid, riboflavin, tannin and thiamine. Of the constituents known to fight cancer, oleanolic acid appears to be the most significant with its anticarcinomic; anticomplement, antihepatotoxic; antiinflammatory, antileukemic; antileukotriene, antinephritic, antioxidant, antiperoxidant , antiPGE2, antiplasmodial, antisarcomic; antiseptic, antiTGFbeta, antitumor (Breast, Colon, Kidney, Lung, Pancreas); antiviral, aromataseinhibitor; cancer-preventive; hepatoprotective; immunomodulator;leucocytogenic; NF-kB-Inhibitor; phagocytotic; and prostaglandin-synthesisinhibitor properties [24][25]

Anti-inflammatory constituents include saponins in poke root and triterpenes in the berries: alpha spinasterol, ascorbic acid, calcium oxalate, caryophylline, isoquercitin, jialigonic acid, and oleanolic acid. [26]

Immune stimulant constituents include astragalin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, phosphorus and oleanolic acid. [27]

Anti-AIDS: Pokeweed antiviral protein (a Single Chain Ribosome Inactivating Protein or SCRIP) is being considered as a potent inhibitor of human immunodeficiency for AIDS There are also well-known three different pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP)isoforms from leaves of Phytolacca Americana (PAP-I from spring leaves, PAPII from early summer leaves, and PAP-III from late summer leaves) that cause concentration-dependent depurination of genomic HIV-1 RNA.[28][29]

Antiviral: PAP, oleanolic acid, ascorbic acid, tannin, mitogen. [30]

In addition: Betanin and oleanolic acid are antiperoxidative and the vitamins plus caryophylline and oleanolic acid are antioxidant. Astragalin, isoquercitin and caryophylline are aldose-reductase-inhibitors. [31]

Food Uses

Although the seeds within the berries are highly toxic, the berries are often cooked into a jelly or pie, and seeds are strained out or pass through unless bitten. Cooking is believed to inactivate toxins in the berries by some and others attribute toxicity to the seeds within the berries. The leaves of young plants are sometimes collected as a spring green potherb and eaten after repeated blanchings. Shoots are also blanched with several changes of water and eaten as a substitute for asparagus. They become cathartic as they advance to maturity.[32] The cooked greens are sold commercially in the South, but any food use of the plant is controversial because of toxins in the plant.


Pokeweed poisonings were common in eastern North America during the 19th century, especially from the use of tinctures as antirheumatic preparations and from ingestion of berries and roots that were mistaken for parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, or horseradish. [33] Deaths are currently uncommon, although there are cases of emesis and catharsis, but at least one death of a child who consumed crushed seeds in a juice has occurred.

The toxic components of the plant are saponins based on the triterepene genins phytolaccagenin, jaligonic acid, phytolaccagenic acid (phytolaccinic acid), esculentic acid, and pokeberrygenin.[34] These include phytolaccosides A, B, D, E, and G, and phytolaccasaponins B, E, and G. Phytolaccigenin causes hemagglutination. [35][36]

Other uses

Poke berries make a beautiful purple dye, however it is short lived and is washed out easily. Will last little more than a month away from sunlight on baskets.

A patent has been filed to use poke toxins to control zebra mussels. [37]

  • Lewis, W.H. and M.P.F. Lewis (2003). Medical Botany. 2nd ed. Hoboken: Wiley. pg. 82
  • [ "Complete Pokeweed Information" from professional
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Phytolacca_americana". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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