Nature Talks: the invasive plant species strike again

Special to0 the Union Leader
September 19. 2014 8:09PM
Nature Talks columnist Cheryl Kimball took photos of pokeweed growing around her property, including the early-stage cluster of fluffy white blossoms, left, and plump purple berries in the final stage. (Cheryl Kimball/Special to the Union Leader)

Here, the plump purple berries are the final stage of the season for pokeweed. Cheryl Kimball

JAPANESE KNOTWEED and I have done battle for many years. A small area in front of the dog pen off the side of the garage has alternately been a lovely herb garden and a wildly growing patch of the invasive plant that in the fall dries like tubes of fake bamboo. It grows in almost Audrey Jr. of “The Little Shop of Horrors” fashion (several inches seemingly overnight).

It does, dare I say, have an attractiveness about it — delicate early growth, broad leaves and dried winter stems with smaller branches culminating in sprays of small dangling tassle-like clusters whose dried small stems look lovely after an early light snow. But it also has a persistence that makes battle with it a losing proposition. This year, the knotweed won and the patch was given over to the mini forest of tall stems.

Right beyond the knotweed, as well as behind the garage, bittersweet bides its time through spring and summer waiting for its moment of glory in the fall when its small red berries burst open to reveal yellow interiors, sending crafters searching far and wide for the decorative invasive. To me, the main redemption of the bittersweet over its Japanese knotweed neighbor is that the tangle of vines provides great cover for birds. Come mid-November, I place my bird feeders a few feet away where chickadees, finches, cardinals, tufted titmice and others flit back and forth from the feeder to the shelter of the leafless vines. Throughout the winter, from the window of the back room I often see a gang of blue jays huddled in the bare bittersweet branches behind the garage; the cluster provides significant shelter from falling snow.

I’m not sure about the knotweed, but I am pretty certain the bittersweet may have been planted by our predecessors at this property. We bought the place from the heirs of the previous occupants. The man who lived here last was in his 90s, his wife having predeceased him by a few years. Evidence here and there — a kiln in the carriage house, handmade clothes in an upstairs closet, a sun catcher with a wild violet forever caught in resin tucked in a drawer — made it likely that Helen did crafts, so bittersweet probably provided her with raw materials. But the latest invasive — the pokeweed — seems to have simply appeared on its own; and its locations around the property are increasing.

The first time I noticed pokeweed was several years ago when one sturdy-looking young plant began to grow near a stone wall. I let the plant grow wondering what it was. It became rather tall. In the fall, drooping large clusters of berries appeared that eventually turned deep purple.

Pokeweed is one of those amazing things in nature that do not need a brain to figure out survival mechanisms. According to MedlinePlus, a website from the National Institutes of Health, pokeweed is poisonous — not surprising, since it is a member of the nightshade family. The site says there are more than 2,000 plant species in the nightshade family “many of which are inedible and many of which are highly poisonous” (tobacco, interestingly, is a nightshade, as is the tomato). The site, by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, who wrote a New York Times bestseller on autoimmunity called “The Paleo Approach,” goes even further stating that “nightshades are eliminated from the autoimmune protocol” and suggests that anyone with unresolved inflammation might want to think further about this.

As for our pokeweed, “the highest amounts of poison,” the NIH site explains, “are found in the roots, leaves and stems. Small amounts are in the fruit.” So it would seem that birds — one of the best transporters of plant seeds — as well as other animals might be able to eat a berry without feeling ill effects, then drop a seed or two far afield when the berry has worked its way fully through the digestive system.

The impact of ingesting pokeweed sounds pretty horrid — possible symptoms, according to the NIH site, are convulsions, diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, muscle spasms and even seizures. (The number for the National Poison Control Center is (800) 222-1222; experts give instructions on how to act in a suspected poisoning from plants or other toxins.)Another pokeweed popped up in the backyard, supporting itself with the 5-foot hog panel I used to create a fenced area for late-night dog outs. This pokeweed did not survive upright after a recent windy day but still seems to be plenty healthy drooped over as it is.

Over the past few years, I noticed another pokeweed stalk growing near a cluster of white pines beyond the pond. This plant perhaps was getting well nourished by the manure I pile there that neighbors often come and collect. It has expanded from a single stem to several sturdy stems and encompasses an area around 16 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The morning I write this, I could take pictures of all three phases of the berries, from the cluster of fluffy white blossoms to tight green beebees, to the plump purple berries that are the final stage of the season.

All of this stealthy and healthy invasive invasion makes me begin to understand those abandoned-seeming old houses one sees in almost every town where, although you see lights on and figure someone must still live there, it doesn’t look like anyone has touched the exterior since President Lincoln was a child. It makes it clear how an invasive becomes the most thriving living thing in its immediate world.


Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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