In praise of a put-upon weed

On my porch standing in the corner by the door is the ugliest walking stick you will ever see. It is about four feet long and a little more than an inch in diameter.

Woody fibrous threads dangle like the remnant tassels on a stripped ear of corn. Age has turned its handsome green and purple hues into streaks of terra cotta.

It is the mighty stem of pokeweed brought home last summer from a walk in the woods.

Thoreau praised the pokeweed's virtues as a walking stick: light, sturdy, and cheap. Not finely carved or polished, it is walking stick enough to turn away branches, vines, and spiny brush from my face, turn over rocks where I wouldn't put my hand, and gauge the depth of pools in streams.

I keep pokeweed growing along the back picket fence, watching it as carefully as I would a stranger in my house, ready to banish it if its welcome is outgrown.

The weed patch forms a dramatic background to some of the most average- looking roses you will ever see - average when compared with the ones I see in the fancy magazines (probably airbrushed), but spectacular when compared to the poke.

Unlike roses, pokeweed plants are not named for kings and queens and movie stars, nor are societies formed in their honor. Well-dressed men and flower-dressed women will mingle with tea cups and crystal at rose unveilings and award ceremonies.

But not for poke. It serves its purpose simply by being.

Pokeberry grows throughout the eastern United States and is one of the few plants to have been thoroughly (if not wholeheartedly) naturalized throughout many parts of Europe.

It grows in woods and thickets and on the aprons of wetlands. Mine grows in the full shade of a blue ash tree.

In midsummer, tiny pinkish-white and green-centered flowers dangle from long, narrow racemes. Veined, dark green leaves up to 10 inches long are backdrops to the delicate blossoms.

A friend of mine tells the story of a supper at the table of country-living relatives. He was offered a big slab of pokeberry pie for dessert.

Sure of his grandmother's stern admonition that the berry is pure poison, he declined gracefully. Should he say something?

He didn't. They lived.

As a folk-medicine, the pokeberry was used in tincture or heavily laced with alcohol. It is not recommended.

However, many people appreciate the succulent springtime shoots boiled and boiled again. Tastes like asparagus, I'm told.

(Evidently, spelling was as regionally confusing in 1844 as it is now. During the election that year, followers of Democratic candidate James K. Polk, displaying their support, picked twigs of the plant and wore them in their lapels. Both Polk and poke prevailed.

The stout and fibrous stalks grow to a height of six or eight feet. Usually at this time of year a neighbor asks when I am going to cut those things down.

Just wait a few weeks, I reply, and turn to the tiresome, not-so-rosy, task at hand: thrips, aphids, grosbeaks, cankers, black spot, leafhoppers, two-spotted mites, root-knot nematodes, and beetles, as the poke looks down, aloof and disdainful.

Midsummer is the time of the pokeberry. The rhubarb-red stalks and wine-stained leaves stand out against the languishing roses, and the sun shining through the translucent leaves is the color of cranberry glass.

Thoreau called the poke "all on fire with ripeness." My neighbor returns to enjoy.

In places where laundry is still hung to dry in sunshine, there are still wives who know (and curse) the purple droplet stains on white cotton sheets. They also know that it is the time of the hungry, pleasure-seeking cardinals, robins, flickers, and downy woodpeckers.

Birdsseem to know the very hour when the berries are ripe, and with surgical precision snip the red berry and leave the green for another day.

The rose is beautiful, a wondrous part of nature; a world without roses is a world diminished.

And yet, the poke endures a life trampled, hoed, sprayed, pulled, and blasphemed. But it loves the earth and feeds the birds, gives balance to the hiker, and has patience and indulgence for the people.

Surely we have heart enough to hold both the pokeweed and the rose.

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