Pokeweed, also known as Phytolacca americana and American nightshade, is a common plant in the Southern, Northeastern and Midwest regions of the United States. With its red stems and distinctive berry stalks, pokeweed is easy to spot. Despite its attention-getting looks, pokeweed is quite toxic, not only to consume but also through skin contact.
Is pokeweed poisonous to touch? Yes. Pokeweed contains chemical compounds that may cause serious gastrointestinal distress, including nausea, diarrhea and cramping. While the greatest danger is from eating any part of the pokeweed plant, these chemicals can also be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. People who get pokeweed sap on their skin may also develop an itchy, red rash, similar to that of poison ivy or poison oak.
While it’s right to be cautious around pokeweed, don’t panic if you’ve come into contact with it. There have been fatalities reported from pokeweed, but they all appear to be from eating parts of the plant.
In this article, you’ll learn more about pokeweed toxicity, the symptoms to watch out for and what to do in case of exposure. Finally, we’ll also talk about how to handle pokeweed safely for removal.
Is Pokeweed Poisonous to Touch?
Every part of the pokeweed plant is considered poisonous to touch without gloves. The plant contains toxic chemicals in its juice and skin irritants in its sap.
Coming into contact with pokeweed can lead to two conditions:
- Pokeweed poisoning, where the toxins enter the bloodstream, causing gastrointestinal issues other serious symptoms.
- Pokeweed skin rash, an itchy skin condition with red, raised bumps or blisters.
But that doesn’t mean that every person will have the same reaction from pokeweed exposure. Some of my gardening friends regularly pull this weed without gloves and they’ve yet to have a problem. However, other people may need emergency medical attention shortly after exposure.
Symptoms from pokeweed reactions can be dangerous, so it’s always best to stay on the safe side. Never touch or handle pokeweed with your bare hands, and avoid letting the toxic compounds and the sap touch your skin.
Which Parts of Pokeweed are Poisonous?
According to Medline Plus, pokeweed contains the following toxins that can stomach irritation and diarrhea:
- Phytolacca toxin
- Triterpene saponins
All parts of pokeweed contain these poisons to some degree or another. The highest levels of poison are in the roots, but the stems and leaves are toxic as well. The pokeberries are considered poisonous also, especially when green (immature), but poisonings have occurred from consuming even the red or purple (mature) berries.
The poisonous parts of the pokeweed in order from most poisonous to least are:
As I mentioned before, I couldn’t find evidence of any fatalities from just touching pokeweed. But it can lead to a nasty experience with gastrointestinal distress or a stubborn skin irritation.
Another danger is that the natural chemicals in pokeweed could interact with common medications. Verywell Health lists these medications as having a high risk of adverse reactions with pokeweed:
- Antihypertensives (blood pressure-lowering medications), including diuretics, ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers
- Anticoagulants (blood-thinning medications), including warfarin and Coumadin
If you take any of these medications, it’s definitely worthwhile to take extra precautions whenever you think you may come into contact with pokeweed.
Condition #1: Pokeweed Poisoning
Even if you don’t eat pokeweed, touching any part of the plant with bare hands can allow the toxins to get into your bloodstream. This can happen through skin absorption or a break in the skin.
Once these chemicals start circulating in your body, they can cause pokeweed poisoning, a potentially serious condition.
Symptoms of Pokeweed Poisoning
Pokeweed can cause some concerning symptoms within about 2-6 hours of ingesting, according to Mount Sinai Health System. If anyone has ingested the pokeweed or any pokeberries, watch for the following symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Incontinence (loss of urinary control)
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in level of consciousness
The same symptoms can appear from skin contact with pokeweed toxins, though they are usually less severe.
What to Do about Pokeweed Poisoning
Symptoms from pokeweed poisoning are serious and should be treated immediately.
Unless you’re expressly directed to by a healthcare professional, DO NOT attempt to induce vomiting.
Go to the emergency room or call an ambulance in case of dangerous symptoms, especially with changes in level of consciousness, difficulty breathing and seizures. This is especially important with children and pets- they’re much more susceptible to poisoning from pokeweed.
Know when you or the person was exposed to the pokeweed, and which part of the plant. For identification purposes, place a small piece of the plant in a plastic bag if you can do so safely.
Condition #2: Pokeweed Skin Rash
If you’ve touched pokeweed with bare hands or brushed up against it, you may develop a rash from skin-irritating toxins.
This rash is an allergic reaction to the skin irritants in the pokeweed plant sap. Whether you get a rash and the severity of the irritation depends on how sensitive you are to the toxic compounds.
What Does Pokeweed Rash Look Like?
Pokeweed skin rash may show up almost immediately after exposure, or it may take as many as 10 days to appear. The more sensitive you are to the toxic compounds, the worse your rash will be.
The rash itself often produces small, raised red bumps that look a lot like poison oak or poison ivy. You may even develop some blisters. Besides being red and inflamed, the rash will also likely be extremely itchy.
What to Do About Pokeweed Rash
As soon as possible after exposure, wash the affected skin repeatedly with soap and water. Change your clothes and throw them in the washer right away.
If a rash develops, do not scratch it, even if the itching is severe- scratching only spreads the rash and can further damage the skin.
Apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone 1% cream if the rash is small and you don’t notice any other symptoms. If the itching becomes unbearable or continues to spread, it’s a good idea to call the doctor.
If you start feeling any chest pain, shortness of breath, severe headache or difficulty swallowing, go to the emergency room immediately.
Is Pokeweed Safe to Eat?
This is a topic of some debate. Native Americans used pokeweed as a treatment for arthritis and to induce vomiting, and in some parts of the United States, people have been eating pokeweed as an early spring green for generations. Even today, some herbalists use pokeweed as an immune booster or to help alleviate the symptoms of certain conditions.
But there’s no denying that pokeweed is packed with potent toxins that have been fatal in the past. For pokeweed to be even moderately safe to consume, it must be harvested and prepared exactly right. This video from Homesteading Off the Grid does a great job of explaining this question:
In our opinion, the benefits of ingesting pokeweed in any form is simply not worth the risk.
How to Handle Pokeweed Safely
Given the danger of a troublesome skin rash or worse, take the time to make sure you’re properly protected when working with pokeweed.
Jen Stark, master gardener and founder of Happy DIY Home, shares her tips for removing pokeweed safely. “You don’t want to touch it with your bare hands under any circumstances. I would recommend wearing a long-sleeved shirt, pants, gloves, boots, and eye protection when you deal with it.”
When you’re done handling the pokeweed, put all clothing in the washer and be sure to wash your hands with lots of soap and water.
Besides being a danger to touch, pokeweed is a tenacious plant that needs proper removal or it can just grow right back. We’ve covered this topic in detail in our post on effectively removing pokeweed, so stop by to learn more.
Frequently Asked Questions about Pokeweed Toxicity
Pokeweed toxicity is a serious subject, but it is usually more an issue of skin irritation or rash than a potentially life-threatening event.
Take the steps to protect yourself and your loved ones (including furry friends) and remove it from your yard or garden as soon as possible. Pokeweed is one plant that you definitely don’t need in your yard or garden!
We hope you’ve found this article helpful. Are there any more questions you have about pokeweed? Do you have any other experiences or tips to share? We learn best as a community, so please share in the comments!