Tuesday, September 15, 2015

To attract Cedar Waxwings to your yard, let the pokeweed run wild...

The dark purple-blue berries of Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) are irresistible to Cedar Waxwings. So much so that I don't even have to look out the window to know when they start to ripen. As soon as I hear the high-pitched, magical chittering of a flock of Cedar Waxwings in our backyard, I know the pokeberries are in season...

Pokeweed berries are nutritious for birds. Their dark color and beautiful light purple stems are attractive in the garden as well.
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 looks for ripe berries. (There are two birds in this photo...can you see the second bird at the bottom near the right.) These two birds are part of a flock of 6 birds that regularly forage in our backyard. Earlier in the season, they feasted on mulberries from our 6 mulberry trees. 

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...

7 comments:

Bruce Lindman said...

Given the toxicity of this plant, people should think twice about intentionally establishing it in an area where children are present.

Kelly said...

So true, Bruce. That's why I mentioned in the post you might not want the plant in your yard if you have kids. Those little blue berries could look tasty to a little one! You can find it anywhere there is disturbed land in nature, fence rows, field edges, near creeks, streams and rivers. So it's good to be able to identify it.

Tammie Lee said...

such a beautiful plant! stem, berries and flowers.
how wonderful that the birds flock to it.
I also have cedar waxwings and i love watching them.

Kim at NatureismyTherapy.com said...

There's a big pokeweed plant near the boardwalk at Magee Marsh and every time I go in there I have to stand and admire its beauty. I had no idea it was toxic though, so thanks very much for educating me (as you always do!).

Roy Norris said...

Lovely birds Kelly, we get the other species here if the winter is cold enough and there is a lack of food in Scandinavia.
Problem is we have to have a bad Winter to see them.{:))

Elaine said...

Delightful photos! Makes me wish those berries would grow here.....

Kelly said...

@Tammie - They are so beautiful, and I love their constant high-pitched chatter. :-)

@Kim - I love running across it in the wild. I always hear catbirds around it when I see it along the Little Miami River.

@Roy - I guess that's a good trade-off every once in a while? :-)

@Elaine - I don't know how far up they go, Elaine. You have other cool things we don't have, though! :-)