Pokeweed or Phytolacca americana is a herbaceous plant that grows as either a small plant, shrub, or tree. Native to the eastern half of North America, it is easily recognizable by its vibrant magenta stems with hints of pink that provide support for long, pointed leaves and elegant, hanging swathes of tiny, white flowers that become very enticing-looking berries, just begging for us to reach out and pluck them.
But don’t be fooled. Is pokeweed poisonous to touch? Yes. Pokeweed, sometimes called American nightshade, has been long documented as one of the most dangerous plants to humans, pets, and livestock in the natural world.
Before the advent of modern medicine, pokeweed was included in the accepted collection of folk medicines all over the world. As it seemed to have an effect on the digestive system when consumed. Assumed to be a “positive” effect, sadly, it was anything but. Higher and higher amounts were consumed which led to many adverse health conditions, including death.
Scientific studies have since discovered phytolacca toxin and phytolaccigenin proteins in this plant as being the cause of its severe toxicity.
- Is It Safe To Touch Pokeweed?
- Poisoning Symptoms After Touching Pokeweed
- How To Treat Symptoms Of Pokeweed Contact
- What Part Of Pokeweed Is Harmful For Humans To Touch?
- What Makes Pokeweed Toxic?
- FAQ Pokeweed Toxicity
Is It Safe To Touch Pokeweed?
Coming in direct contact with the plant’s juices, from berries, roots, or cut stems, could allow these phytolaccine proteins to be absorbed into the body. Starting a chain reaction of damage to the respiratory and digestive systems. In addition, cases of rashes and other skin irritations from touching the leaves (similar to poison ivy) have also been widely reported.
Yes, drinking brewed, pokeweed tea was once a common practice, centuries ago. And you will occasionally see some forums that say “Sure! Pokeweed is edible and relatively safe.” But, proven scientific research and the experiences of everyday people like you and me, have definitely given us a reason to keep scrolling.
When attempting to remove this plant from your property, it is highly recommended that you wear protective clothing to make sure that none of the plant’s sap touches your skin. If you happen to encounter it on, say, a nature hike, then it’s best to acknowledge its interesting and colorful appearance (from a distance), then keep right on hiking.
Poisoning Symptoms After Touching Pokeweed
Pokeweed poisoning is defined as the accidental or intentional intake of the plant or plant product containing the aforementioned toxic proteins. These can also adversely interact with prescribed and non-prescribed medications. Which could result in distressing side effects. If prolonged skin exposure or ingestion occurs, there are specific symptoms to look for that may indicate poisoning.
For example, within 2-6 hours, the GI tract may exhibit signs of hemorrhagic loosening of the bowels, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Blood exposure may result in headaches, convulsions, muscle spasms, and low blood pressure. While difficulty breathing, weakness, and potential loss of consciousness could arise in the respiratory system.
Is Pokeweed A Skin Irritant?
Yes, many people and animals have been treated for skin issues resulting from exposure to this toxic plant. While not as prolific as poison ivy, some cases are more severe than others, based on an individual’s tolerance for it. Or, lack there-of. Toxins can pass through the skin into the bloodstream, if exposed, and cause all kinds of troublesome symptoms.
So, if you don’t know what your personal tolerance is for it, it is highly recommended that you wear rubber gloves and protective clothing when handling it. If skin exposure occurs, mild cases can be treated at home. Just as you would poison ivy or oak. If more severe, seek medical attention immediately.
Does Touching Pokeweed Cause A Rash?
As mentioned, skin rashes and experiences of inflammation have been widely reported. Just as gardeners and landscapers are basking in the glow of a day’s work well done, they suddenly start to feel oddly itchy. This can happen anywhere from four hours up to 10 days after exposure.
Just as with poison ivy, mild cases often look like blotchy, prickling discolorations or small hives as the skin reacts to oils in pokeweed leaves. Yet, more severe cases could develop if the skin is exposed to the plant’s root, stem, or berry juices. Breakouts of spreading blisters are common in these cases. Especially if an already-existing skin wound is exposed.
Increased or Decreased Heart Rate
One concerning symptom of pokeweed exposure or ingestion is an abnormal heart rate. Either increasing or decreasing as toxins cause blood vessels to constrict. A drop in blood pressure results, followed by a decreased heart rate. As the exposed person moves around, the heart needs to work harder to maintain adequate blood flow, resulting in an increased heart rate.
Remember that ‘chain reaction’ I mentioned? Here’s one example. When ingesting pokeweed’s phytolaccine protein causes a sudden drop in blood pressure, which subsequently leads to difficulty breathing and cardiac distress. This kind of respiratory insufficiency is what makes seizures a possible complication of pokeweed ingestion, as the brain is deprived of oxygen.
The next link in that chain would be spasms in muscle tissue. Toxins induce low blood pressure which causes blood vessels to constrict, which deprives muscles of much-needed blood-producing spasms.
How To Treat Symptoms Of Pokeweed Contact
If a mild rash occurs, it can most likely be cared for at home. In a similar fashion to how you would ease the itching of poison ivy, oak, or chickenpox. However difficult, try to avoid scratching. As this will only facilitate the spread of the toxin causing the rash. If the rash begins to spread or other symptoms arise, seek medical attention immediately.
Applying an over-the-counter, topical hydrocortisone ointment can help to alleviate the itch. I would avoid anything with antihistamines or benzocaine because these could actually make it worse.
First Aid Steps
With the help of over-the-counter anti-itch creams and non-steroidal pain relievers, mild cases tend to show improvement in a couple of days. But again, if any of the more severe symptoms described should arise, a few mindful steps will go a long way toward a healthy recovery.
- Call for local emergency help immediately.
- Give them as much information as you can (amount and time of exposure or ingestion and general health status of affected person)
- Unless instructed by a healthcare professional, DO NOT induce vomiting in the affected individual
- Try to take a sample of what was ingested or touched for the medical professional to inspect
How Do You Get Rid of a Pokeweed Rash?
Washing your hands with cool water and gentle disinfecting soap will help to absorb any toxins and wash them away. If the irritation extends to larger parts of the body, a lukewarm bath is also effective.
Applying cool compresses to the skin can ease inflammation that is common with pokeweed rash. Topical anti-itch ointments can alleviate that uncomfortable tingling sensation and prevent you from needing to scratch it. Scratching could cause additional tears in the skin, leading to a secondary infection.
Mild cases will usually resolve on their own. But, more severe cases should be treated as recommended by a healthcare professional.
What Part Of Pokeweed Is Harmful For Humans To Touch?
Every part of a pokeweed plant contains phytolacca toxin and phytolaccigenin proteins. This means every root, stem, leaf, and berry is potentially hazardous. Yet, toxicity levels will vary depending on the part of the plant in question and the actual age of the plant itself. Let’s take a closer look at each.
The roots of pokeweed plants contain the highest concentration of toxic biochemicals. Since removing it from the roots is the only effective way to completely remove this plant from your property, great care must be taken when attempting to remove it from the soil.
Some people actually like the look of pokeweed trees and shrubs and choose to leave them on their property. However, for health and safety reasons, this is not recommended. Especially if you have small children and pets in your home.
To remove small pokeweed plants, you must remove the entire taproot. Small bits left behind will only grow into new plants. Wearing protective gear, you can pull small shoots out by hand or with a weed puller, just as you would a carrot when harvesting.
For larger shrubs and trees, dig a wide circle around the plant that you think would encompass the entire root ball. Again, donning protective clothing, dig deep into the soil and remove the large taproot. Then, continue until all roots are removed and properly disposed of.
People throughout human history (even today) have been enticed to eat wild pokeweed berries by their juicy, colorful appearance. Much to the detriment of their internal organs. Berries contain bio-toxins in liquid form which means they can travel quickly throughout the body and do some serious damage.
If you’re considering removing a flowering pokeberry, wearing rubber gloves, you’ll want to remove the flowers and berries first. Before they drop and are allowed to germinate. One plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds that can remain viable in the soil for 40 years.
Leaves & Stems
Touching pokeweed leaves and stems with bare hands means potentially allowing toxic oils to seep into your skin and affect your blood. At best, causing a nasty, itchy rash. At worst, you spending some time in the emergency room.
Wearing elbow-length rubber gloves is recommended when pruning or removing this plant. Moreover, small children and dogs are often attracted to this plant by its color and foliage. Children touching the leaves and stems and then touching their faces could prove dangerous. Dogs or other animals could also experience fatal symptoms when ingesting pokeweed leaves or stems.
Seeds from pokeweed berries give us a very convincing second reason why to steer clear of them. Not only does the berry itself contain poisonous juice but the seeds within are almost as concentrated with toxins as the roots. All the more reason to remove these first, before removing the plant from your property.
What Makes Pokeweed Toxic?
Every part of the pokeweed plant contains toxic phytolacca toxin and phytolaccigenin proteins. Rendering every root, stem, leaf, and berry as potentially poisonous. The most severe pokeweed poisoning events occur when any part of this plant is ingested. Whether intentionally or accidentally.
Always research different plants and shrubs that you plan to remove from your property for safety and protection. Many poisonings occur when plants are assumed to be benign when they are in fact highly toxic. You can find out all about how to get rid of pokeweed by reading my article here.
What Happens If You Touch Pokeweed?
Simply touching pokeweed roots, stems, leaves or berries can provoke an allergic reaction. Very similar to poison oak or ivy. More mild cases happen when the berry juice or plant sap comes in contact with the skin.
Exposure to its toxic proteins can cause an inflamed, blister-like rash. Or worse, be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin, causing a wide range of internal issues. Unless you’ve been tested, you won’t know whether or not you have a tolerance for this plant. So, it’s best to protect yourself when handling it or simply steer clear.
What Happens If You Ingest Pokeweed?
Eating any part of a pokeweed plant can be hazardous to your health. Eating just 10 small berries (green or red) can result in nausea, severe stomach pain, vomiting, and incontinence.
Upon entering the bloodstream, pokeweed constricts blood vessels resulting in a drop in blood pressure. Especially affecting those on antihypertensive drugs like ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, and diuretics. More than that can cause cardiac issues, seizures, and even death.