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The pokeweed: beautiful, poisonous and useful!

Updated on July 27, 2010

General notes

This reddish-stained, non woody plant branches like a tree, and then dies to the ground, all in one season. In fact, it is a large perennial herb that grows from a long fleshy taproot each spring to reach a height of 1-3 m.  Its stalked, alternate, oval emerald green smooth-edged  leaves grow to 20 cm long. Short-stalked, small five- petaled radially symmetrical flowers with green centers bloom in the summer and fall, dangling from long racemes: in late summer and early fall, white to purplish flowers produce round clusters of dark purple berries, each with an indentation, as though someone has poked it. The bitter roots- cathartic, emetic and somewhat narcotic-  are poisonous. All parts of the pokeweed are potentially toxic depending on preparation, individual susceptibility, plant part, and growing season. Toxicity generally increases with maturity with the exception that green berries are more toxic than ripe berries. The root is particularly toxic with the leaves, the stems, and the berries demonstrate progressively less toxicity.
The name pokeweed is derived from the Virginian Indian word "pocon", which means plant with red dye. Other names are: pigeonberry, garget, inkberry, Virginia poke, scoke etc.
Where it has room to spread, pokeweed becomes a surprisingly attractive plant whose dark green leaves are brightened at almost every angle between them and the branches with tassels of whitish-yellow flowers, succeeded by berry clusters that change from green to red and eventually in the autumn to a rich, royally lush purple. For some reason, few of the billions of the long, shiny, black seeds produced each year have been able to find conditions suitable for their germination and growth. An usual way to plant poke for the home has been to break or cut into ten-centimers lenghts the preferably medium size roots, those some 4 cm in diameter, and to sow these in garden soil, perhaps in a deep, flat box in a dark and warm cellar or outdoors, along a protective fence. Regularly watered, about a dozen such starts will do for a family of three, regularly sending up shoots for months. So as not to harm the young plants, only one crop of greens is taken the first year. In the second growing season, three cuttings are made, about mid-May, early June, and late June (home users continue to enjoy the sprouts until blossoming begins in July). If you plan to plant a crop with your own seed, harvest the wild berries when they become dark purple and ripe, about early August. Place in some non-metallic receptacle, crush, and allow to ferment for three or four days. Then wash out the seeds with water and dry them in a thin layer, perhaps on cheesecloth or outspread paper; then either plant at once for fall and early winter greens or hold for sowing the next spring. Pokeweed can serve as a hedge, add color to an area and in the fall provides a source of food for the many birds who enjoy the berries: important source of food for the mourning dove, the berries are also loved by a host of other birds including the robin, bluejay, cardinal, yellow-breasted chat, cedar waxwing, and the golden-fronted woodpecker (curiously, however, if a bird eats too many of these berries, it will become intoxicated!). You may have seen birds get tipsy on the berries! Fox, opossums, raccons, and the white-footed mice also eat the fruit.

A recipe to prepare this plant...

Pokeweed is one of the best-tasting vegetables on the planet. In United States, settlers learned from the Indians to eat pokeweed. Especially in the South, they made "poke salad"- young shoots boiled in several changes of water to eliminate toxins. The flavor defies comparison with any other vegetable, however there are some dangers in its use, here are some precautions:
make sure you collect only the young stems and leaves only in the spring, never the roots, flowers, berries, or summer and fall plants, which are poisonous (in fact, pokeweed contains the glycoside phytolaccine, which produces gastrointestinal irritation and the concentration of phytolaccine increases as the plant matures). Avoid plants that are more than one meter high. Never eat pokeweed raw or out season- prepare it always following the recipes, or you may get very sick. (Always discard the cooking water from preparing boiled pokeweed). Beginners should use this potentially dangerous gourmet vegetable only under expert supervision.
A basic preparation, that is a must for anyone using pokeweed, is:
8 cups young pokeweed leaves and stems, collected only in springtime (and without any pieces of the toxic taproot), coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (optional)
Bring one large pot of water and one medium-size pot of water to a rapid boil over high heat. Place the pokweed in the medium-size pot and let it boil for one minute. Drain the pokeweed in a colander, discarding the cooking water. Transfer some of the boiling water from the large pot to the medium-size pot, add the pokeweed to it immediately before it can cool, bring the medium-size pot back to a boil, and let the pokeweed boil for another minute. Drain it again, discarding the cooking water. Refill the medium-size pot again with boiling water, add the pokeweed immediately, bring to a boil again, and let the pokeweed boil for 15 minutes. Drain the pokeweed again, pressing the pokeweed against the colander to press out as much water as possible. Discard the cooking water. Meanwhile, if desired, gently heat the garlic in olive oil, stirring, 2 or 3 minutes. Stir the oil, garlic and vinegar into the drained, cooked pokeweed greens and serve hot. You can serve the pokeweed so prepared like asparagus, perhaps with drawn butter and a dash of lemon juice or on toast with hollandaise or a light cheese sauce.

...some curiosities about it

This native North American plant was used by Native Americans in the eastern United States for the treatment of a variety of illnesses including dysentery, cancer and rheumatism, the powdered root was an emetic and cathartic. A salve for sores was made by combining roasted poke root, bittersweet, yellow parilla and elderberry bark to a base of boiled lard and beeswax. The Indians also found pokeweed delicious, and some of the first post- Columbus adventurers on these shores were in such agreement that they took the startings back to England and southern Europe, where the vegetable became popular. During the 19th century, this herb was one of the treatments for syphilis. Indians of the eastern states thus used a poultice of powdered pokeroot to treat tumors and skin eruptions, and the colonists followed their example. It was believed that the plant's high toxic qualities were responsible for its medicinal effects.
Folk remedies containing pokeweed are used as a salve for pruritus and as a brochodilator. The fresh root was applied as a poultice on bruises and painful joints.
Many a soldier writing home during the Civil War cut his own quill pen from the wing feather of a turkey, then squeezed some of the red juice from the ripe, deeply purple berries of the pokeweed to use as his ink. A few of these letters, still legible, can be seen in museums today, reccomending the enduring permanence of what are often still called inkberries. One eighteenth-century recipe for pokeberry ink called for boiling together pokeberries, vinegar and sugar; in twentieth century, country people still sometimes used this concoction for special writing purposes. However, the reddish juice from the ripe berries, as country boys confirm when school classes reopen in the fall, will serve as optimal ink for steel pen points. Indians also made a dye with the plant's berries. Connecticut Valley natives stained baskets with it. Other Indians used pokeweed to color clothing, wooden ornaments, and sometimes their own skin...


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  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Thanks BkCreative! It's great for me to read your kind comments and compliments! Yes, you had to know when make the harvest of the leaves, and how to prepare them- the recipe I've wrote here in the hub works well, in my experience.

    And moreover, yes, we lost a lot of knowledge, but we can also find it again! Nature is always there to teach us a new lesson! :)

  • BkCreative profile image

    BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

    What an excellent hub. Many folks in and from North Carolina have cooked pokeweed. My earliest lessons were that it was poisonous so you had to know how to prepare it. And then it was delicious.

    Ah, we have lost so much wisdom complete with healthy benefits because we don't know nature.

    Thanks for such a great hub. I'll bookmark it to refer back to and to share.

    Rated way up and more!

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Thanks Kay, I'm very glad that you liked this hub and the photos too! The leaves, cooked for the salad, have a very peculiar taste, personally, I find it delicious! Thus, I cultivate this beautiful plant, both for eating its young leaves, and also to attract the birds to my garden; now the first berries are appearing...wonderful!

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Hi D.A.L. many thanks for your comments & compliments! Yes, this a plant native of the United States, but I have spotted its presence, in great quantity, also in the mediterranean regions. It's beautiful, isn't?!

  • Kay Creates profile image

    Kay Creates 7 years ago from Ohio

    Very interesting article. I've heard of poke salad but have never tasted it. The berry laden plants are beautiful and I know the birds and butterflies are very attracted to them.

    Great photos.

  • D.A.L. profile image

    Dave 7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

    Hi, what an informative hub about a plant I had not previously heard of. As you know I write about British native plants, so reading about one from your country is something I can add to my knowledge. Brilliant photographs. Rated up. Thank you. Best wishes to you.