Q: We found this plant growing in a shady area, vining along the ground in our yard in Carmichael. The small white flowers are turning into tiny hard green (so far) berries. Any idea what it might be?
Gina Mcgregor, Carmichael
A: According to UC master gardener Lorraine Van Kekerix, your mystery plant is pretty common in the Sacramento area. She knows from personal experience.
“The sprawling plant with large leaves, reddish stems, inconspicuous white flowers and large clusters of berries also appeared in my yard last summer,” she said. It is called pokeweed or pokeberry (Phytolaca americana) and birds often spread the seeds. This weed seems to be spreading in California with more reports of its appearance. In addition, seeds in the soil can remain viable for several decades.
Pokeweed is a bushy, herbaceous perennial up to 10 feet tall, though it usually stays between 4 and 6 feet tall. The leaves can be up to 16 inches long and 5 inches wide. The berries start green and turn purple/black when ripe.
In winter, it dies back to a thick central taproot up to 4 to 6 inches in diameter. The tap root grows deep and rapidly spreads horizontally.
Pokeweed plants are highly toxic to humans, pets and livestock. According to the National Institutes of Health, all parts of the plant and seeds are poisonous for humans. Avoid pokeweed contact with the skin as the toxins in the plant can be absorbed through the skin. The plants are generally more toxic as they get older.
Digging up the tap root can be difficult, Van Kekerix said. It is easiest to dig up very young plants as soon as you see them.
Wear protective clothing and gloves to prevent contact with the skin. Cutting the stems off below the root crown is often effective in killing young plants.
You can also cut back the stems and brush the stubs with concentrated glyphosate (Roundup). Several applications of glyphosate are likely to be needed until the plant growth nutrients stored in the taproot can no longer produce a new stem.
Remember: Handle pokeweed with care. And get rid of it before those seeds ripen and have a chance to reproduce.
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