Phytolacca dioica

Not exactly the usual beautiful photo from BPotD today, but a very interesting plant. The first image is in the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden, the second image showing the flower buds was taken in a Buenos Aires park.

Posts often appear on the UBC Botanical Garden forums from people seeking identification for plants that have appeared in people’s gardens—like this or this (remember the song?). One of the most common ID requests is for Phytolacca americana, poke weed—the plant in the two cited posts. Its striking purple berries and rapid growth get it noticed. Gardeners, unfamiliar with the plant are often quite surprised and a little wary of this invader that seems to grow to a metre or more in a very short time.

The South American relative, Phytolacca dioica is also quick growing, but grows to the size of trees, to almost 20 metres. The wood is very soft and the plant often forms a large swollen base with multiple trunks. The evergreen foliage forms a large canopy, which provides shade for the gauchos on the pampas. Toxins in the plant protect it from grazers and pests.

There are some great webpages describing this huge “poke weed”. Wayne’s Word offers good info on both Phytolacca dioica and P. americana. Blue Planet Biomes has a nice, descriptive article, Ombu.

Phytolacca dioica
Phytolacca dioica buds

26 responses to “Phytolacca dioica”

  1. James Golden

    I saw this “giant herb” in the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden in February. But I was completely flummoxed by the Phytolacca name until an Argentinian explained to me this was not a tree but a giant “herb” (or so translated from Spanish). I would have guessed it was about 80 feet tall.

  2. Meg Bernstein

    Amazing looking herb, for sure.

  3. bev

    Wow, amazing pictures! Many thanks for that and the education.

  4. Linda Cobb

    I live in South Carolina and we have poke weed as a weed. When I was in England, they were growing it as a specimen plant loving all the berries. I was stunned when I saw it, but I must agree that it is an interesting plant.

  5. Annie Morgan

    I’ve managed to spend half an hour just following the links around – fascinating plant.

  6. Trish Murphy

    Wow! Phytolacca is a genus that doesn’t take no for an answer.

  7. Carol Ross

    It’s hard enough to dig out the tenacious and extensive pokeweed roots from my garden as it is. I’m glad they don’t get as big as that one. I love this site, it’s my daily treat. Thanks so much.

  8. Eric in SF

    That trunk sure looked woody. Does this plant compete with Musa as the world’s largest herb?

  9. Edith

    When I was little I used to climb an ombú with my book to read up in the branches. Wish I could replace my invading pokeweeds with a climbable ombú!

  10. Lorax

    Ensete actually wins out as the world’s largest herb – they’ve been recorded at 80′ tall, and biomass for biomass, you can’t beat ’em.
    What an astounding pokeweed! It makes me happy that I’ve only got to deal with P. peruviana here in Ecuador.

  11. Susan Gustavson

    I saw a number of these Ombu in the parks in Buenos Aires. Huge ‘trees’, looked kind of like rubber plants. A local said the wood isn’t of any use, now I see why–it isn’t a tree! I really enjoy your site.

  12. Jenn

    Pokeweed’s a pest, but it is beautiful
    The sculptural lines of that trunk are amazing.

  13. Cambree

    That is a scary trunk! But what a unique tree, nice photo.

  14. elizabeth a airhart

    big feet in my garden
    it was not there last night
    i is going back to my bed

  15. Judith Solberg

    Poke weed may be a pest, but it surely does make good cooked greens.

  16. Eric Simpson

    I’ve seen oaks here in California that produce similar spreading-base-with-multiple-trunk structures. I thought that was what I was seeing in the first photo – even the leaf litter on bare soil looks similar. The flower stalks, on the other hand….

  17. Barb Mullinix

    I remember that there was a market for poke berries in the 80’s; pharmaceutical companies were buying it for medicinals (don’t know if that is still true). I would guess that this plant produces huge crops of berries, and I wonder if they are equally useful. It would probably be a really profitable cash crop.
    Judith, I thought that poke was toxic once it leafed out. We only used the “greens” from shoots that were just coming out of the ground–looking about like asparagus.

  18. Judith Solberg

    Barb, it’s been a long time–thirty-five years, I think–but my recollection is that we parboiled them. (pause to check) No, Medsger doesn’t say parboil, so we must’ve just been careful to get ’em young enough. But people in that part of the Ozarks even canned them for later eating.

  19. Janet A.

    What an interesting plant! Elizabeth, I’m so glad someone else saw the “big feet” in the first photo.
    Eric, thanks so much for keeping the Botany Photo of the day going. I enjoy the great variety of plants pictured and would miss this site terribly if it were not available.

  20. Steven M.

    For those unlikely to make it to South America anytime soon, there is a beautiful large specimen at the Huntington Botanic Garden just outside Los Angeles. Quite spectacular.

  21. Dana

    I can certainly see the similarity between this and P. americana. I wonder if these berries spread around as readily as P. americana…

  22. Juliana Pereira

    I remember a great group meditation, with more than a hundred people lying over the Phytolacca’s trunk here in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park!! Magic moment!!

  23. Juliana Pereira

    forgot to say how amazing the life’s potential of a really small seed!!

  24. Freddie

    hey we have one in a abondened hacienda that belongs to our family belive it or not it is in Villa Hermosa in Durango Mexico it is very very big like 40 to 50 feet it’s nice

  25. grace

    I have just been given a small umbu plant in a pot after I fell in love with it’s parent plant at a rural retreat. How long do they take to grow? Can I leave it in a pot for a while?
    Grace (melbourne Australia)

  26. Graciela Barreiro

    Hi everybody!
    I am the manager of the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden and want to thank the “photo of the day”.
    We love that Phytolacca. It is probably the biggest in the city.
    We are now working on it, trying to give a “better impression” to visitors. We have planted native bromeliae all around the trunk to avoid people climbing the tree and leaving “human dirt” all aroun this beautiful specimen.
    Let me know if you want a picture of its new aspect!

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