Posts Tagged Phytolacca americana


Eastern Tiger Swallowtails sunning on leaves of Halesia diptera

Abundance abounds on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont. As summer winds down, plants are multiplying with enthusiasm, and native animals are taking full advantage of the bounty.  My area saw a week of what the weather seers call “unsettled weather,” which means thick humidity, uncomfortable (but not intolerable) heat, and random thunderstorms. As usually happens of late, my patch of Piedmont was ignored by most of the rain clouds, but we got enough to push plants and animals into a bit of a late summer frenzy.

Butterfly multiplicities are evident on every blooming flower in my yard. Species diversity seems to be multiplying too. I’ll show you in another post. I caught the two above as they were basking in the first sunshine we’ve seen in several days. I think they missed the light as much as I did.

Most of the plants are in the final stages of seed production, filling up seed heads and capsules, preparing to release their progeny into autumn air when it arrives in a few weeks.  Here’s a pair of Tulip Poplar “cones.”

All the Tulip Poplars reproduced well this year. I predict I’ll be sweeping their seeds off walks all fall and winter.

Another member of the Magnolia family — Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) — was kind enough to produce one of its spectacular seed heads within range of my camera:

Seed “cone” of Magnolia tripetala

Animal multiplicities include the deafening, constant, ebb and flow of cicada thrumming. They are maximizing their time in the humid air that makes me stick to myself after two minutes outside. Also present in astonishing numbers are the American Robins. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many this time of year. These are not the flocks of spring and autumn migrators that I’m accustomed to seeing. These are local birds — newly adult ones, judging by their very motley breast feathers.

The American Robins are here because of the bumper crop of Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) dominating every untamed corner (we have a lot of those) of the property. Easily eight feet tall with stems thicker than my wrist, these magenta and green very poisonous natives are currently weighed down by the biggest crop of berries I’ve ever seen them produce. The American Robins have claimed this crop for themselves. From dawn to dusk, I hear their muttering and exclamations as they devour every purple berry they discover.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of American Robins and many other native animals.

I admit I don’t argue much with this plant. Unless it pops up in a spot that just won’t work, I usually let it have its way. However, if I had children or dogs with a habit of eating fruits in the wild, I would eradicate this plant from my yard. It is extremely poisonous to humans, from its roots to its leaves and berries. Yes, young leaves, if boiled for long periods, are consumed by some as “poke salad,” but I think the dangers aren’t worth the risk. Proceed with caution if you welcome this species into your Piedmont yard.

Photogenic and important to wildlife

Also multiplying in my yard: spiderwebs! I can’t walk anywhere without walking into one.

The builder was probably hiding in the leaves of the shrub that holds its web.

The arachnids even build across our often-used front walk. Every morning this time of year, it’s best to wave a stick in front of you to intersect the webs before your face does.

Multiplicities of fungi are also popping up all over the yard. Today, I encountered this large collection of delicate beauties:

A fairy picnic area perhaps?

They are quite exquisite up close, as you can see here:

The delicate folds in the caps remind me of outspread paper fans.

I am not an expert on fungi, so I assume they are all poisonous. I leave them to adorn the landscape and only consume mushrooms I buy at grocery stores.

As summer begins its reluctant transformation to fall, Nature’s multiplicities ensure that next year’s growing season will be productive — barring the usual weather catastrophe caveats, of course.

I revel in the beauty and diversity of this abundance, but I’m also hoping for a real winter this year — one with prolonged bouts of weather cold enough to freeze the ground and kill problem insects, diseases — and maybe even a few Pokeweed plants. One can only handle so much magenta and purple in the landscape after all.

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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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