No Calendar Required

Pokeweed Berries

I’ve been walking Piedmont woods and gardening in Piedmont soils for over four decades now. The inhabitants of Piedmont fields and forests, wetlands, and gardens are old, dear friends. Over all those years we’ve been together, I’ve come to recognize the rhythm of southeast Piedmont seasons. I know their sounds, smells, and sights well enough to identify seasonal cycles by these signs.

Right now, despite relentless sweltering heat and humidity, my Piedmont yard and gardens are hinting at autumn’s imminent arrival. I knew this first by the sounds.

Gone are the days and nights of wall-shaking summer cicada thrumming. The sounds of their mating noises are now intermittent, diminishing in volume and frequency with each passing day. Replacing their serenade are the field crickets. I rarely hear the crickets in spring and early summer. But now they are entering their dominant time in the seasonal song cycle. Their sweet, softer leg-rubbing choruses make sticky late-summer nights feel gentler. They coax the sun over the horizon before quieting during the heat of the day.

Gone are the bird mating songs. No longer are the Wood Thrushes haunting the deep woods with their flute-like cadences. The Rufus-Sided Towhees are silent; woodpeckers no longer drum their territorial declarations on hollow trees. And the swooping aerial whine of the pendulum dance of Red-Throated Hummingbirds has been replaced by their constant chittering as they argue over feeder access and tasty flower nectar, intent on fattening themselves for their upcoming southward migration that grows closer with each sunset.

Smells of late summer are mostly those of over-ripeness as damaged or overlooked fruits grow moldy, sliming the shoes of unobservant walkers. Toadstools emerge in greater numbers after every thunderstorm. The leaves of wind-damaged oak branches grow brown and soft, releasing acrid tannins into moisture-thickened air.

Sights of season-turning abound to the eyes of this experienced Piedmont observer. Take the Pokeweeds, for example.  Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can be found up and down the eastern half of the United States. It pops up all over my yard and gardens, thanks to the help of the birds, who find the juicy purple berries to be a favorite late-summer treat. In my sandy loam soil, the fleshy roots of this common native perennial grow to spectacular dimensions. Wonder Spouse uses a mattock to dig them out, often hauling off roots bigger than my head.

But you have to admit, Pokeweed is a pretty plant. The purple-red stems are quite visually striking. In my yard, the plants routinely grow to heights of seven or eight feet. And the contrast of ripe purple berries against magenta stems is stunning. I know a number of local gardeners, especially those who favor native plants, who deliberately invite Pokeweed into their flower gardens.

Although I haven’t issued any formal invitations, Pokeweeds find their way into every corner of our five acres every year.  I mostly tolerate their presence, knowing how much they contribute to the food supply of local wildlife. Besides the songbirds, raccoons, opossums, and foxes also find the berries irresistible. And the deer — but they eat everything, don’t they?

Ripe Pokeweed berries — along with other sights, smells, and sounds — signal the waning of summer and the promise of approaching fall as reliably as any paper calendar.  To everything there is a season.


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