FlowersWhite, with a green centre, pink-tinted outside, about in. across, in bracted racemes 2 to 8 in. long. Calyx of 4 or 5 rounded persistent sepals, simulating petals ; no corolla ; 10 short stamens; 10-celled ovary, green, conspicuous; styles curved. Stem : Stout, pithy, erect, branching, reddening toward the end of summer, 4 to 10 ft. tall, from a large, perennial, poisonous root. Leaves: Alternate, petioled, oblong to lance-shaped, tapering at both ends, 8 to 12 in. long. Fruit: Very juicy, dark purplish berries, hanging in long clusters from reddened footstalks ; ripe, AugustOctober.
Preferred HabitatRoadsides, thickets, field borders, and waste soil, especially in burnt-over districts.
DistributionMaine and Ontario to Florida and Texas.
When the pokeweed is ” all on fire with ripeness,” as Thoreau said ; when the stout, vigorous stem (which he coveted for a cane), the large leaves, and even the footstalks, take on splendid tints of crimson lake, and the dark berries hang heavy with juice in the thickets, then the birds, with increased, hungry families, gather in flocks as a preliminary step to travelling southward. Has the brilliant, strong-scented plant no ulterior motive in thus attracting their attention at this particular time ? Surely ! Rob-ins, flickers, and downy woodpeckers, chewinks and rose-breasted grosbeaks, among other feathered agents, may be detected in the act of gormandizing on the fruit, whose undigested seeds they will disperse far and wide. Their droppings form the best of fertilizers for young seedlings ; therefore the plants which depend on birds to distribute seeds, as most berry-bearers do, send their children abroad to found new colonies, well equipped for a vigorous start in life. What a hideous mockery to continue to call this fruit the pigeon-berry, when the exquisite bird whose favorite food it once was, has been annihilated from this land of liberty by the fowler’s net! And yet flocks of wild pigeons, containing not thousands but millions of birds, nested here even thirty years ago. When the market became glutted with them, they were feel to hogs in the West !
Children, and some grown-ups, find the deep magenta juice of the ink-berry useful. Notwithstanding the poisonous properties of the root, in some sections the young shoots are boiled and eaten like asparagus, evidently with no disastrous consequences. For any service this plant may render to man and bird, they are under special obligation to the little Halictus bees, but to other short-tongued bees and flies as well. These small visitors, flying from such of the flowers as mature their anthers first, carry pollen to those in the female, or pistillate, stage. Exposed nectar rewards their involuntary kindness. In stormy weather, when no benefactors can fly, the flowers are adapted to fertilize themselves through the curving of the styles.