Phytolacca americana is a perennial herb, 1-3 m tall, from a massive fleshy taproot sometimes to 15 cm wide, known to be toxic (Kingsbury 1964); roots associated with a community of mycorrhizal fungi principally Glomus spp. (Yuan Wei et al 2014). Stems stout, hollow, smooth, often partly red, becoming wine-red in age, primary stem usually divided into 3 main branches above, emerges late may, seed germinates mid-June (McDonnell et al. 1984).
Leaves alternate, smooth, stalk 1-5 cm long; blade 8-30 cm long, 1-5 cm wide, narrowly elliptic to egg-shaped, tip pointed; base rounded to wedge-shaped, margin entire.
Flowers small, greenish-white to pinkish, radially symmetrical (regular), sepals 5, petal-like, 0.2-0.3 cm long, rounded, persistent in fruit, petals none, stamens 10 (usually), ovary superior (hypogynous), green, of 10 fused parts (carpels) in a ring, 10 stigmas; inflorescence of racemes 5-20 cm long, becoming opposite the leaves (Radford et al. 1968); blooms June-Sept., often self-pollinating.
Fruit dark purple, fleshy, juicy, 0.4-0.6 cm long, 07-1 cm wide, a flattened globe; seeds 5-12, black, shiny, flat 0.3 cm wide; fruiting stems nodding, red; up to 78 fruit per raceme, ripens Aug.-Nov. from base of raceme; may have flowers and ripe fruit on same stem; seeds 5-12. Seed load 20%. Pulp nutrients: water 83%, lipid 1%, protein 10%, CHO 38% (White 1989). Fruit eaten and seeds dispersed by birds.
Wetland status: FACU+.
Frequency in NYC: Common.
Habitat: Open habitats, or part shade, disturbed areas, fill, edges, burns and forest gaps. Historically probably a plant of forest gaps.
Notes: Young shoots and leaves and berries edible if boiled and water discarded. Older leaves and stems toxic (Hough 1983; Kingsbury 1964; Radford et al. 1968). A study by Cramer et al. (2003) demonstrated that bright, contrasting colors on Phytolacca fruit displays help attract seed dispersers (Stiles 1982b). Also eaten by bears, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, skunks and opossums. Seeds eaten by white footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) (Hyatt 1998; Martin et al. 1951; Wilson 1993). Fruit flesh may be mildly toxic to mammals, mice only eat cleaned seed (Kingsbury 1964; McDonnell et al. 1984). Seeds may persist in soil for up to 40 years, but seed survival is higher in undisturbed forest than in disturbed forest (Marks 1983).