Pokeweed, (Phylolacca Americana), is a common plant found in the Eastern part of North America, which has historically been used as both a food and a medicine by Native Americans and early settlers. Although considered a noxious weed by farmers, it is now sometimes used as an ornamental.
In the fall, the plant appears to die but grows back from the root the following spring, year after year. In the spring, the plant begins to re-grow, forming roundish, smooth stems and alternate toothless leaves that are a medium green color and smooth to the touch. As the plant grows in height it begins to branch and the leaves get larger – they can grow to a foot or more in length. The entire plant usually reaches the height of a grown man, but can also attain heights of eight to 10 feet.
As the plant matures, the stem starts to turn red from the ground up and all summer long flowers continue to form in long, tapered clusters. The tiny individual flowers have five whitish sepals (no petals), which then go on to form round, flattened berries that turn from green to red to dark purple. The berry clusters, being heavier than the flowers, have a tendency to droop downward. The plant is then widely spread by birds who eat the berries, which contain shiny circular black flattened seeds.
The most important thing to know about Pokeweed is that all parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans. The toxicity varies depending on the part of the plant. The toxicity level also increases as the plant matures. The taproot is the most poisonous part of the plant. It is thought that the toxins become highly concentrated in the taproot because it persists year after year.
The poisonous chemicals can cause unbelievably bad reactions in humans such as violent nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and urinary incontinence. Unfortunately, these are some of the milder side effects. Pokeweed can also cause convulsions, transient blindness and loss of consciousness due to low blood pressure.
Teas made of roots and leaves were used for centuries as an abortifacient. They were also used as a treatment for syphilis and scurvy and to help relieve the pain of rheumatism. If you were lucky, it improved your condition before it made you incredibly sick or even killed you.
As is often the case, it is these bad effects that have made Pokeweed a folk medicine. Early settlers learned about pokeweed from the Algonquin and Cherokee who used the ripe berries as a dye to decorate, among other things, arrow shafts and light colored horses.
In fact, Pokeweed got its name from the Algonquin word “pakon,” which means “dye.” Pokeweed was also commonly used as ink, especially by soldiers during the Civil War. Using it as a dye rather than as a food or as a medicine was probably a much safer option.
The young shoots and leaves were eaten in a “Poke Salad.” I shudder as I recall how much Poke we ate. We thought it was perfectly safe when the shoots and leaves were young, green and tender. They were cooked in several changes of water and had a pleasing spinach-like flavor. Young stems were also harvested before they turned red. They were boiled multiple times and eaten as a tasty asparagus substitute. The crimson juice of the berries was also used to add color to certain wines.
Pokeweed is now horticulturally crossed to produce whiter flower clusters and larger, brighter berries – used to adorn flower gardens and attract songbirds and butterflies. Birds and butterflies are unaffected by the poisonous chemicals. There are also a few mammals that seem to be able to survive the toxins in the berries.