Garden Detective

This mystery plant may poke you

This plant shows up every year with purple berries. I hope you can help identify it for me.

Lynn Hunter, Placerville

Based on your photograph, it appears that this mystery plant is common pokeweed ( Phytolacca americana), says UC master gardener Rachel Tooker.

Also called “poke salad,” this robust perennial has long, tropical-looking leaves. From August through October, pokeweed produces floppy racemes with small white flowers that develop into glossy purple-black berries.

Pokeweed can grow to 10 feet tall. It dies back in winter and then reemerges from the ground in spring, growing from a fleshy storage root. The leaves are large, 3 inches to a foot long and 1 to 5 inches wide, often with reddish stalks and lower veins.

Be careful around pokeweed. All plant parts, especially the root, contain saponins and oxalates and can be fatally toxic to humans and livestock when eaten raw or with improper preparation. They can cause severe digestive tract irritation. Birds occasionally become intoxicated after eating the berries.

Remove the pokeweed as it appears to keep it from spreading further. This can be accomplished simply by hoeing it up or digging it out.

For years, I have planted Ambrosia melons. They are the sweetest melons. I have always gotten seeds or starters from Capital Nursery. I have been unable to find a new source. Can you help?

Chuck George, Citrus Heights

According to UC master gardener June Bleile, many of the major seed companies carry Ambrosia melon seeds. “In addition to seeds, I did see seedlings at nurseries here in town recently,” she said.

Have you checked the seed racks at other local nurseries or garden centers? There also are many online sources.

Burpee has its own Burpee’s Ambrosia cantaloupe, its best-selling cantaloupe for more than 20 years. Park Seed sells an Ambrosia hybrid, too. Harris Seeds offers its version as Ambrosia muskmelon., which stocks dozens of melon varieties, calls it simply “Ambrosia melon” with this description: “In taste tests, Ambrosia is recognized as the melon people prefer most. It simply has a very inviting, luscious, sweet flavor that is distinct — different than any other melon. One bite and you’re usually hooked.”

For information on growing melons in the Sacramento area, send a self-addressed, business-size stamped envelope to: UC Cooperative Extension, EHN 99, 4145 Branch Center Road, Sacramento, CA 95827.

This information is also available at; search for EHN 99.