Unpopular Plant #3 – Picking a Poke

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Phytolacca Silberstein Ammi visnaga early July 05A while back, I started “The Unpopular Plant Series” category to discuss plants that I never get to write about in my books. It’s not that these plants aren’t interesting or beautiful or otherwise garden-worthy: It’s just that they’re usually too obscure, unavailable, or politically incorrect to be included, or otherwise oddball enough to not make the cut. (You’d think a 130,000-word manuscript would be enough to cover even eccentric plants, but trust me, it’s hardly enough to cover even common stuff.) So, I figure this is my chance to cover some cool plants I’ve grown or seen but normally never get to write about. And now, a round of applause, please, for today’s Unpopular Plant: variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’).

Phytolacca Silberstein Aug 07

Ordinary pokeweed is a beauty in its own right, of course, with lush green leaves, rich magenta-purple stems, white flowers in summer, and clusters of near-black berries in fall. And let’s not forget its cast-iron constitution, thanks to its deep, arm-thick roots—a feature that, along with the ability to self-sow enthusiastically, accounts for the “weed” part of the common name. But if you can look past the “weed” and see the ornamental features, and if you have the space for a plant that can easily reach 6 to 8 feet tall after a few years, then just maybe you might consider trying pokeweed in your own garden. And if you’re going to take the plunge, then why not go for the variegated version?

Phytolacca 'Silberstein' with Vernonia early September 07‘Silberstein’, also sold as ‘Variegata’, is sometimes described as originating in Japan, but according to rare-plant collector Steve Silberstein, it was found growing in New Jersey. (As a side note, you may see this plant sold as ‘Steve Silberstein’, but Steve himself credits his wife, Melody, with the discovery.) Regardless of what name they’re sold under, the plants are grown from seed, so the amount of variegation can vary somewhat. I can’t swear that all of the offspring are variegated, but based on my own experience growing out the seedlings, I’d say at least a very high percentage of them are marked to some extent. The variegation takes the form of ivory to cream-colored speckling, often so heavy that some leaves appear to be mostly pale with just some green stippling. Apart from the dramatic leaf variegation, the other features are mostly the same as with common pokeweed. (The variegated plants do seem to be somewhat shorter when mature, typically reaching 4 to 6 feet.) As for growing conditions, anything from full sun to partial shade seems fine. Average to moist, but not soggy, soil is ideal. Hardiness seems to be USDA 5 to 10, or thereabouts.

Phytolacca americana Silberstein 3 mid Sept 05 Think you’d like to try it for yourself? I found a few seed sources on-line: Summer Hill Seeds lists ‘Silberstein’, as does the fantastic Gardens North, and The Fragrant Path lists “Most Variegated Poke”. Or, spring for an already-started speckled poke from Plant Delights Nursery. A few years ago, Avant Gardens sent me a selection of P. icosandra called ‘Berkeley Gold’ as a bonus plant: a stunner with irregular yellow edging instead of the pale speckling. (What an amazing gift! To me, it was worth even more than all the plants I had paid for, which were themselves worth every penny.) Sadly, it didn’t survive the winter here in southeastern Pennsylvania, and it appears no one is currently selling it.

As a final note, I should mention that yes, any pokeweed can be weedy, and yes, the plant can be toxic if ingested, unless you really know what you’re doing and pick the shoots at the right time of year. But as long as you’re not in the habit of gathering salad fixings from your ornamental border, you should be okay.

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

Latest posts by Nancy J. Ondra (see all)

Comments on this entry are closed.

Carol October 7, 2007, 10:23 am

I do like variegated leaves. This looks like a plant I’d definitely like to try next year. Thank you for posting about it!

Carol at May Dreams Gardens

Gloria October 7, 2007, 10:42 pm

What pretty leaves against those dark berries and stems.I would be tempted if I thought it had a chance of survival.
I found a regular pokeberry growing at the back of my garden today less than a foot tall and only a single cluster of berries not yet ripe.I will leave it and see what happens but there is not much hope here in Chicago. Only once in all my years of gardening has a pokeberry grown tall and berried in my garden.

Benjamin October 8, 2007, 12:26 am

Do those berries have wildlife value? I think it looks pretty neat, too.

Nancy J. Ondra October 8, 2007, 8:30 am

Thanks to all of you for stopping by! Yes, Benjamin, the berries are popular with many fruit-eating birds, as well as opossums, racoons, and deer, apparently.

If any of you are interested in growing this plant, I’d be happy to try collecting some seed to share with you; leave a message here or contact me directly at ondra at verizon dot net.

Benjamin October 8, 2007, 6:30 pm

Seeds would be fantastic! What a kind offer, thanks.

Thomask October 25, 2007, 2:32 am

I was turned on to the beauty of pokeweed many years ago in the herb garden of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Their immense specimen had a large colony of two kinds of perennial lobelia planted near the base: L. cardinalis and L. siphilitica. The spires of red and blue lobelias meeting the over-arching dangles of magenta and navy-black was shockingly beautiful, harmonious and vertical. I remember it so clearly after all these years.

I’ve had nothing but disappointment with the variegated versions of pokeweed. Tried both seeds and plants of different cultivars. I currently garden in acidic sand at the beach where normal pokeweed thrives. The variegated cultivars seem to have much less vigor and can’t cope with conditions out there. Poor vigor and not winter-hardy. However, this may be a great asset for gardeners in less harsh places worried about the invasive proclivities of normal pokeweed.

By the way, I found weedy solace in the variegated versions of Japanese knotweed and common dayflower.

Love your great blog and stunning pics.

Nancy J. Ondra October 25, 2007, 8:01 am

Thanks for joining us, Thomas! I’m sorry to hear that you don’t have luck with variegated pokeweed. But aren’t we lucky that there are many other great variegated “weeds”?
–Nan

Connie Phelps November 25, 2007, 9:20 pm

Would it be hard to dispose of if needed? With that thick of a root if I change my mind and want it moved or dead, would it be possible? I know that sounds rather negative, but I have through the years regretted the ownership of some plants!

Nancy J. Ondra November 25, 2007, 9:26 pm

To be honest, Connie, I’ve never tried to get rid of it on purpose. I have managed to kill it a few times, though, and that wasn’t hard at all. (It got crowded out by taller companions.) I doubt it would take kindly to being moved, except in the seedling stage, but as far as eliminating it permanently, cutting it down a few times would do the trick, I’d think.
-Nan

Ione December 12, 2007, 7:59 pm

How funny. I have lusted after this plant for years, but as you might expect in this part of the country the very thought of growing pokeweed on purpose is heresy. ;-)

I finally got my very own baby root of P. americana variegata in a trade just this past week. I’ve got my fingers crossed — but if it doesn’t make it, I may hit you up for seeds next year!

btw — looks like you have a great site here. I plan to spend some time “poke”ing around it. Thanks for all your work!

I’m glad you found your way here! Good luck with your little poke, but if it doesn’t make it, sure, let me know if you want to try it from seed.
-Nan

shon tiffany September 17, 2008, 9:18 pm

living in harpers ferry, west Virginia, pokeweed is one of the commonest weeds on my half acre, and grows over six feet high the first year. Today I found one plant with a “Berkeley gold” type branch on it. Should I save the seeds from that branch? What are the chances of them breeding true? Alternatively, is it possible to reproduce the “sport” from a cutting?

How cool! If it’s a distinct edge on the leaf, I’d guess that it won’t come true from seed; that usually works only with speckly or streaky variegation. You could try a cutting, but I’m not sure how that would work. If it were mine, I think I’d take lots of pictures this year but leave the plant alone and see if the variegation reappears next year. If it didn’t, well, at least I’d have the pictures and the memory.
-Nan

Susan Kierstead June 6, 2009, 9:12 pm

I’ve been growing ‘Silberstein’ for years in southern NH and can’t say enough good about it. In a very well tended garden, it got to be 7 feet tall and probably that wide. I got rid of the giant, and let some seedling develop to a manageable size. It was easy to cut out. I’ve been playing seed fairy throughout the yard and it seems to do best in gardens, rather than the edge of the woods.

Brian Crye September 17, 2009, 9:11 am

I bought 2 plants two years ago and they have been growing so well here in Ontario that they have out grown the space allotted. Is it possible to transplant them and if so which is better spring or fall? I have no volunteer seedlings and I’m afraid I’m not very good with growing plants from seed anyway so transplanting or buying new ones are my options.