|Common Pokeberries are ready for plucking and eating (by birds only; pokeweed berries are poisonous and can make humans sick). As soon as the berries are ripe, Cedar Waxwings descend and start feasting.|
These photos are from August 5 when most of the berries were not yet ripe. It was the beginning of their fruiting season, but it didn't stop the Cedar Waxwings from moving in. They knew exactly where every ripe berry was and wasted no time taking advantage of the nutritious summer treat. Now, the established plants are mostly picked over, but younger plants growing beside their elders are dripping with the dark, plump berries. In the wild, pokeweed plants look common, but in the suburbs, they look intensely exotic. Their cranberry red stems and racemes create an exciting backdrop to the dark blue fruit, and as autumn progresses, the colors only intensify. Our first stand of pokeweed started as a volunteer in 2008. At first I didn't know what it was, so I just let it grow, and did it ever grow. It grew tall and wide and arching, and soon it was dripping with chartreuse berries, but when they started to ripen, the fun really began. The first birds to eat the dark berries were robins, then came catbirds, and finally Cedar Waxwings. Over the years the catbirds still come, and the robins do too, but the Cedar Waxwings are the biggest consumer. I have a lot of pokeweed plants scattered around my yard, so I hear their chittery, magical sounds all summer.
|A Cedar Waxwing swallows a pokeweed berry whole. You can see the bird's gular pouch distending to hold the berry (click here to learn more about gular pouches).|
If Thoreau liked pokeweed...
...it has to be good, right? I was reading "The Book of Field and Roadside; Open-country Weeds, Trees, and Wildflowers of Eastern North American," by John Eastman, and came across a reference to Thoreau where he wrote, "its stems are more beautiful than most flowers," which is true. You can't walk past the plant without taking a second look. I wanted to see what else Thoreau said about pokeweed, so I looked up the passage and found it in "The Writings of Henry Davide Thoreau, Volume 10," page 393. Click here for the online link to the free ebook. He goes on to describe them in detail as only Thoreau can, ending with "It is a royal plant. I could spend the evening of the year musing amid the poke stems."
|Pokeweed has a wide spreading habit. This is just one plant (and it's only half of it!). Pokeweed grows 4-10 feet tall, and its berries can remain viable for 40 years.|
|Pretty to look at, but leave the berries for the birds (all parts of a pokeweed plant are toxic to humans).|
Pokeweed is a poisonous plant...
If you have children, pokeweed might not be a good plant for your yard. The roots are the most poisonous, followed by the leaves and stems, and then the berries. Children can be sickened by eating as few as 10 berries. Babies are especially vulnerable to the toxins and can die after eating only a few berries. The roots are deadly, and you should wear gloves if pulling the plant while it's alive (the juices can harm the skin). To learn more about pokeweed, click here for The Ohio State University's "Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide."
Mulberries attract Cedar Waxwings too...
In late May and Early June the mulberries in our yard start to ripen, and they are the first berries to welcome back the waxwings, but their season is short, and by July, they are gone, which makes pokeweed so perfect. It lures the Cedar Waxwings back in, and we get to listen to them all the way through the end of summer and early autumn.
|A Cedar Waxwing sits in one of our mulberry trees. He's not looking for fruit in the tree. It's been gone for a long time. He's looking at the pokeweed bushes near the tree...|