Wood County has a rich railroad history. Most of our cities and villages at one time had a railroad depot. We had many railroad lines crisscrossing our county. As the county progressed, the old railways were abandoned leaving behind old, gravelly, railroad beds of soil.
An old, abandoned railroad bed that Wood County citizens will recognize is the Slippery Elm Trail.
In 1875, the Bowling Green Railroad Company operated its first train from its namesake city in Ohio south to Tontogany on rails made from the wood of the local Slippery Elm tree (Ulmus rubra).
The trees were abundant in the Great Black Swamp of Northwest Ohio which was a barrier for the development of farmland and roads in the area because of the expense of draining it. Selling the Slippery Elm wood to the railroad produced an opportunity to finance the draining of the swamp.
With this lucrative partnership in place, a corridor was cleared for the railroad and farmland was gained. By 1890, the route had been extended to North Baltimore providing access to the rich gas and oil belt in southern Wood County. For 103 years, the railroad operated along this corridor until discontinuing service in 1978.
Today, the 13-mile Slippery Elm Trail follows the route of the former rail corridor running south from Bowling Green through the small town of Rudolph and ending in North Baltimore. The Slippery Elm Trail opened in 1995 as a premiere, multi-use trail in Northwest Ohio and is owned and managed by the Wood County Park District.
In addition to the Slippery Elm Trail, other old, abandoned lines have left behind their old, gravely railroad beds. Gravely soil is found not only on these old, abandoned railways, but also in scattered pockets throughout the county.
Often found growing in these areas is a native weed called Common Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), which is also native to the eastern half of the United States. Some have even gone as far as to call it invasive, but because it is a native plant, it cannot be termed an invasive.
Common Pokeweed is a large, bushy, herbaceous perennial that sometimes resembles a small tree, growing up to 10 feet in height. It is characterized by an enormous taproot: smooth, succulent, red-purple stems; large lance-shaped leaves and grape-like clusters of dark purple berries in the fall. Despite what many could consider very attractive features, the plant is poisonous both dermally, if the skin is broken and if ingested.
Despite its poisonous tendencies Pokeweed has long been used for food and medicine. Young leaves have been eaten after boiling in two changes of water to remove toxins. A wide variety of chemicals have been isolated from pokeweed that have antiviral and other medicinal properties. The berries are poisonous to humans, but are commonly used to make dye, and are a fall-favored food for migrating birds.
What I find fascinating about this weed is its past. Just as Wood County has a past with our old railroads, the Common Pokeweed also has an interesting past.
The common name Pokeweed originates from the Native American word for blood, referring to the red dye that can be made from the fruit. Roots, leaves, and berries of common Pokeweed were used medicinally by Native Americans and early settlers to treat a variety of conditions from hemorrhoids to headaches. Juice from Pokeweed berries were once used to improve the color of cheap red wine and supporters of President James Polk wore Pokeweed twigs instead of campaign buttons during the 1845 campaign.
It is always fun to learn more. In this case, we have learned about a plant that some people love, and some people love to hate. Anyway, enjoy Pokeweed from a distance, but think twice before planting it in your garden. For more information and images of this plant refer to the Ohio State University web site: Ohio Weedguide (osu.edu).
Portions of this article were acquired from TrailLink.