Posts Tagged Pokeweed

Tired Green, Full Fruits

Tired Green, Full Fruits . . .

Tired Green: faded Lamb's Quarters in Hudson River Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Tired Green: faded Lamb’s Quarters in Hudson River Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

1. Tired Green

The final leg of a recent bus trip was made easier by sharing the ride with poet CA Conrad. He boarded the Greyhound in Philadelphia on his way to an autumn artist’s residency at the Macdowell Colony. I was headed back to my West Village home. This coincidence gave us the opportunity to reminisce over our early days and share recent news. While doing so, I mentioned how I have always enjoyed this time of year marked by “the tired green of late September.”

Conrad never holds back in conversation. As a poet, he values each spoken word. He noted that poetic phrase of mine, which I have been savoring in my mind ever since.

By doing so, I have been practicing one of the techniques that has become synonymous with Conrad’s writing process. He calls it (Soma)tic Poetics: exercises involving the poet suffusing his or her self with a singular theme for a set period of time. These exercises can take various forms such as eating only orange foods, or wearing only blue clothes. For me, I began contemplating tired green foliage, to see what insights the plants’ form and color might reveal.

My use of the word tired stems from the physical wear and tear a plant undergoes during the hot sun and scattered thunderstorms of summer. Native and immigrant urban wildflowers have to endure even more stress and the color, the tired green of late September, reveals that to my eyes. The bright lime and avocado shades of May transform into a grayish pallor that also shows the underlying yellows, often edged in brown. Though not yet ready to burst into color and fall, the near future season of transition for the leaves is visible.

Some hardier species do remain in bloom. One that sports showy white petals above its aging leaves this time of year is Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense).

Horsenettle in bloom in Hudson River Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Horsenettle in bloom in Hudson River Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Tired the green may be, but there are still fresh, colorful wildflowers to be found throughout the urban landscape.

2. Full Fruits

Yes, this is Manhattan! The view from Fort Tryon Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Yes, this is Manhattan! The view from Fort Tryon Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

My wife and I visited the annual Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon Park on the last Sunday of September. Located on the far upper west side of Manhattan, this park sits on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades, which form a true fjord. The views are breathtaking and wild, hard to associate with the conventional image of Manhattan, although the park is located on the latitude of 190th Street.

Flanking the paths of Fort Tryon Park we discovered a variety of late wildflowers such as Asters and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Jewelweed in bloom in Fort Tryon Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Jewelweed in bloom in Fort Tryon Park. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

Prevalent, too, were the fruits of many species, such as the Common Nightshade (Solanum ptychanthum), its stems supporting what look like tiny black tomatoes. Most vivid of all was Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). A patch of these plants resembled a wildflower vineyard lush with thick drooping clusters of burgundy and purple berries. A sign this summer, now retired, cultivated an excellent growing season.

The full fruits of Common Pokeweed. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

The full fruits of Common Pokeweed. (photo taken 09 29 2013)

– rPs 09 30 2013


You can learn more about poet CA Conrad by visiting his own blog (and purchasing and reading his masterpiece, The Book of Frank). Click on his name under the Blogroll . . .

Learn more about Fort Tryon Park by visiting the website of the Fort Tryon Park Trust:

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Inedible Ink

Inedible Ink . . .


American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) grows against a garden fence on West 11th Street. (photo taken 09 24 2010)


American Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is another standard-bearer of late summer and early autumn flora. This fruity perennial is also one of the most deceptive of the common wild flowering plants. The large leaves appear as lush and salad-ready as leaf lettuce. The numerous clusters of berries are big, dark, and juicy, not unlike the elderberry. This outward appearance masks a frustrating reality: the entire Pokeberry plant is poisonous in its raw state, and its leaves are only marginally edible after repeated boiling.

This native American member of the genus Phytolaccaceae can grow to be very large, sometimes as tall as ten feet when left alone. A long, strong taproot helps to make this height possible, as it gives the plant enough stability to soar. The ovate leaves are deep green and alternate along the stems, which lean toward the red end of the spectrum, not unlike rhubarb. Pokeweed’s flowers are the plant’s flagship feature, making identification simple. Each plant will hold raceme clusters that simultaneously display several stages of development on the way to maturation. First, the flowers, which lack petals, nevertheless bloom in the form of white sepals supported by pedicles and peduncles of the same shade. As the season progresses, the sepals likewise transform down the length of the raceme. Small green berries emerge and later turn a dark purple supported by pedicles and peduncles that possess an eerie pinkish coloration similar to uncooked red meat.


Close-up of an American Pokeweed: each raceme ranges from flower to fruit. (photo taken 09 24 2010)


The fruits hang in inviting drooping clusters when at their peak of color. While poisonous to humans and other mammals, the berries are a favorite of songbirds, which cannot digest the seeds, the part that contains the active saponin toxins. The juice is very dark, and stains clothes easily, as any exploring angler who has hiked along a lake or stream bordered by Pokeweed can attest. This lasting color was used as an ink in the 19th Century. Many of the letters authored by soldiers during the Civil War used Pokeweed ink, which was readily available to them in the field.

Today, in 2010, American Pokeweed is not so common in the West Village. The first specimen I encountered was in the small park adjacent to the corner of 14th Street and Tenth Avenue. This plant was weeded out in early September before I could take a photograph. Frustrated by the plant’s premature demise, I searched in vain until the day I discovered Bittersweet growing along Waverly Place ( the street address of Donald Draper in the “Mad Men” TV series); an experience I described in my previous essay. Just after I took my notes and some photos of the Bittersweet vine, I turned the corner on West 11th Street and walked directly into a single large Pokeweed growing, and flowering, from a ceramic pot placed in front of a brownstone townhouse. The plant was so tall it had bent over, creased at the main stem, so it leaned against a black iron fence for support.

I was not able to picture the majestic spread of a giant flowering plant, yet I did have a living example for the Wildflowers of the West Village. And I knew the chirping cardinals and mewing catbirds on that shaded block had an attractive fruit all for their own dessert.


American Pokeweed raceme on display near Waverly Place, the street address of Donald Draper in the "Mad Men" TV series. (photo taken 09 24 2010)


— rPs 09 28 2010

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