Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch With Bare Hands? Symptoms & How to Stay Safe

Pokeweed, a herbaceous plant native to North America, has been a source of fascination and concern for centuries. Known for its vibrant purple berries and towering stems, pokeweed is as beautiful as it is dangerous. 

While its berries may resemble blueberries, they are poisonous and should not be consumed. But what about touching pokeweed? Is pokeweed poisonous to touch?

We’ll delve into the risks of handling pokeweed and explore ways to avoid potential harm.

touching American pokeweed berries

Answered: Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch?

Handling pokeweed bare-handed is not advised. The plant contains toxic compounds, such as phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin ³, which can be absorbed through the skin, potentially causing irritation, allergic reactions, or more severe symptoms. For safe interaction with pokeweed:

  1. Always wear protective gloves.
  2. Avoid skin contact with the plant.
  3. Wash any exposed skin areas thoroughly with soap and water.

Taking these precautions can minimize the risk of handling pokeweed and protect your health.

Touching any part of pokeweed with damaged skin can be dangerous, as the toxins can quickly enter the circulation and disrupt the respiratory and digestive systems. 

A pokeweed rash, similar to poison ivy or poison oak rash, can occur when touching the plant without gloves. Symptoms include redness, swelling, blistering, and itching, especially with prolonged exposure. 

Although the seeds and roots contain most of the toxin, simply touching the leaves or berries often doesnt have much of a reaction in most people. 

What to Do If Exposed & Have a Pokeweed Rash

pokeweed rash picture

If you come into contact with pokeweed and say to yourself, “oh no, I touched pokeweed with my bare hands,” what happens? You’ll likely experience a mild pokeweed rash that can be self-treated at home. 

However, if you have consumed any part of the plant or have a severe rash, seek medical attention immediately. 

It is also vital to avoid self-induced vomiting as the toxicity of different plant parts varies. As stated above, toxins are mainly in the seeds and roots.

Call your vet for advice and treatment if your pets come into contact with pokeweed. 

Remember to wash the affected area with lukewarm water and soap and avoid scratching the skin to prevent secondary infections. You don’t want to allow those toxins to penetrate the protective skin layer. 

Use anti-itching ointments to alleviate the irritating sensation (trusty calamine lotion or 1% hydrocortisone cream), and seek medical attention if the rash spreads, the itching becomes intolerable, or you experience chest discomfort, trouble breathing, or difficulty swallowing.

Note: It’s not a good idea to use anything with antihistamines or benzocaine because it could worsen the situation.

Pokeweed: A Brief Overview

pokeweed plants

Scientifically known as Phytolacca americana or pokeweed, it is a natural plant that can grow in various soil types and is highly invasive. But, also goes by other names such as American pokeweed, poke sallet, dragon berries, Pigeon berry, Pookan bush, American Nightshade, and inkberries.

According to the University of Florida, each plant can produce from 2,000 to 48,000 seeds ¹, which can be dispersed by falling off the plant or by being consumed by birds such as the northern mockingbird and brown thrasher. Once on the ground in the soil, the seeds can survive up to 40 years and grow into a new plant.

It’s a perennial plant that can grow up to 10 feet tall. Boasting large leaves, greenish-white flowers, and clusters of dark purple berries. 

While some parts of the plant have been used in traditional medicine, as a natural dye, and even as food. Although, pokeweed contains several toxic compounds that make it potentially hazardous.

All parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous, including the roots, young leaves, seeds, ripe (and unripe) berries, and old leaves and stem.

The Dangers of Pokeweed: What Are the Toxins?

Pokeweed contains toxins such as Triterpene saponins, Phytolaccigenin, and Phytolaccatoxin. These toxins can cause vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, unconsciousness, convulsions, muscle spasms, stomach pain, and respiratory depression when ingested. 

Proteins found in pokeweed, such as mitogenic, hemagglutinating, and antiviral proteins, can also cause eosinophilia and thrombocytopenia when consumed or touched with damaged skin.

While some may argue that pokeweed is not toxic, scientific evidence supports the plant’s poisonous nature. Though it has been used for food and medicine for thousands of years, researchers are now focused on developing new medicines that rely on its potency.

Pokeweed Poisoning: Look for These Symptoms

If you or someone else reacts more than a rash, such as a child, they may have consumed pokeberry.

Symptoms of pokeweed poisoning include:

  • Nausea 
  • Low blood pressure 
  • Seizures 
  • Muscular spasms 
  • Headache 
  • Incontinence 
  • Allergic reactions
  • Convulsions 
  • Diarrhea
  • Heavy breathing 
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Gastrointestinal pain 
  • Vomiting

Note: Anticoagulant and antihypertensive medications can also be affected by pokeweed.

Pokeweed: What You Need to Know

It’s essential to know about pokeweed. As it’s an invasive plant that can proliferate and become a problem. It’s crucial to be able to recognize it and remove it to avoid potential poisoning. 

Identifying Pokeweed

The plant can be challenging to distinguish from blueberries or grapes if it grows next to a pokeweed patch.

To correctly identify a pokeweed plant, you should start by looking at its leaves. They are oval-shaped and can be 5-10 inches long. The leaves have a silky feel, the exterior is dark green, and the inside is pink. 

The plant produces green-white blooms before developing into pokeberries or the actual fruit. The plant can grow up to 10 feet tall, and the bright crimson stems resemble blood.

 The long white-colored taproot makes it seem fleshy, even if you can’t see it. The pokeweed berries grow in clusters, like grapes, and dangle from the red stem.

Pokeweed Removal: 4 Methods

There are several ways to remove pokeweed, such as digging it up, using weed killer, or continuously cutting it. Here are some steps to follow:

1. Make Use of Your Hands

You can remove the plant by picking it with your hands, just like picking carrots. However, you’ll need protective clothing and goggles if the sap irritates your eyes. Also, this method may not work in hard clay soil.

2. Digging the Plant Out

Digging is suitable for much bigger plants that can’t be pulled out of the ground due to packed soil. You’ll need a rake, safety gloves, long sleeves and pants, a wheelbarrow or cart, a soil screen, a shovel, and a tarp sheet. 

Then, dig around the base of the plant and remove any small sprouts. Next, put the plant on a tarp sheet to dry. It’s also a good idea to pick up any berries that may have fallen and also place them on the tarp.

3. Cut the Plant Down

You’ll need gardening shears and protective clothing to cut the plant to prevent the berries from touching your skin. Then, collect all the berries and place them in a trash can. 

You can then mow over the plant with a lawnmower or trim them with garden shears to the plant’s root. But removing the roots is the best way the plant doesn’t return.

4. Weed Killer Application

If you don’t have the time or the soil is too compact to dig the pokeweed plant out by hand, a weed killer is the quickest and most straightforward approach. However, use caution while working with herbicides since some have been linked to cancer and other serious health consequences. 

Use at least 2 liters of water to dilute glyphosate herbicides like Roundup Max Control. You spray this only the pokeweed leaves, then, after around ten days, you can throw it in the trash.

Another method is to use distilled vinegar, which has natural acid that may burn the roots and stop them from growing.

Some People Eat PokeBerry. How Can It be Poisonous?

a pokeweed plant growing by a house that is poisonous to touch with bare hands

In the springtime, young poke leaves can be transformed into a delectable dish called “poke salad.” To enjoy this culinary delight, boil the tender young shoots and drain the water twice before savoring the dish. 

This double-boiling process is said to make the leaves safe to eat ² and full of flavor (said to have a similar taste to asparagus, but we have not tried them ourselves).

References

1: SS-AGR-123/AG254: Common Pokeweed. (n.d.). SS-AGR-123/AG254: Common Pokeweed. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/AG254

2: Pokeberries: A Grape Look Alike. (n.d.). Pokeberries: A Grape Look Alike. https://www.poison.org/articles/pokeberries-and-grapes-look-alike

3: Pokeweed poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Pokeweed Poisoning: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002874.htm

Website | + posts

Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.