Pokeberry (Phytolacca Americana), also called pokeweed, shares most of its range with the American elder (Sambucus canadensis), or elderberry. Both are native plants throughout much of the eastern half of North America from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast. Pokeberry, however, produces a berry extremely toxic to humans, but elderberries are edible and are often used to generate pies and jams.
The pokeberry plant grows to shoulder height from a thick taproot. Its green stems turn purple-red, and its leaves are as long as 12 inches. Pokeberry flowers from July though September, with clusters of green berries on the stems that eventually ripen to purple. Elderberry is a shrub, growing to 12 feet high and featuring multiple stems. The leaves are compound, made up of a central stem and between five and 11 leaflets. Elderberry flowers during June and July, and its purple-black berries are ready to eat by September.
Pokeberry thrives in damp, fertile soils in full to partial sun. Common habitats include disturbed areas, open woodlands, damp locations, fence lines and roadsides. Elderberry also does well where the ground is moist, growing near rivers and streams, under power lines, in roadside ditches and in abandoned fields.
Elderberry comes in a pair of cultivars called Adams and York, which landscapers select for their superior berry production. Pokeberry fruits are poisonous to humans and other mammals, causing what the Ontario Wildflowers website describes as "extreme gastrointestinal distress." The roots and leaves are also poisonous, but some people boil the leaves twice in separate waters and consume them safely. Touching the pokeberry leaves results in a rash for some sensitive individuals.
Importance to Birds
Both pokeberry and elderberry are good choices for bird gardens and naturalized areas. Pokeberry fruit is a staple of the diets of species such as cardinals, robins, woodpeckers, catbirds, waxwings and bluebirds. The birds often appear drunk after consuming the berries. Elderberry makes its way onto the menus of ring-necked pheasants, red-eyed vireos, brown thrashers, swamp sparrows and scarlet tanagers, notes the Illinois Wildflowers website.