I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds --Wallace Stevens
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of those plants about which it is possible to be of two or three or maybe even four or five minds. On the one hand, it is native, kind of pretty, and birds love the berries. On the other, as a food, it is so famous that songs have been written about it, and some herbalists make medicines from it. On the third, all parts of the plant are toxic to humans and non-bird animals, and many botanists suggest not ingesting any part, no matter how it’s cooked.
Sometime around 2005, pokeweed colonized multiple gardens in my neighborhood. It started out innocently enough. In spring, the attractive young plants have large pale green, ovate, somewhat shiny leaves vaguely reminiscent of Nicotiana. Later the leaves develop pinkish undersides. Any gardener might let them go, as you do a plant you might not have seen before but looks interesting enough to see how it develops. If you do, you’re in for a surprise. The plant rapidly outgrows its cuteness, to become a large, imposing specimen perhaps ten feet tall, with multiple, hollow, purplish stalks at least an inch in diameter. This happens at about the time cup plant is coming into its own, so if you’ve got both, as I do, you start to feel as if you’ve wandered into Indian in the Cupboard land. In July, pokeweed develops little white flowers in a tapering cluster at the top of the plant, which in late summer morph into flattish purple-black berries on red stalks. Striking in every regard. And birds, such as catbirds and robins, do seem to consider the berries a treat. (To which I don’t begrudge them, even if this year the robins did strip my serviceberry tree before the berries were decently ripe enough for a human to pick, so no serviceberry jam this year.)
Pokeweed is a perennial that grows from a large, fleshy taproot. As a young plant, it is easy to pull, but as it grows taller, the roots grow larger and go down deeper. If you dig it up, but leave part of the root, a new pokeweed may greet you from the same spot later in the season or next spring. Some say that if you get below the crown of the plant, it’s effective, but that’s not been my experience. You may not mind having a pokeweed or two, but be careful where you let them grow, because once you let them set up housekeeping, they’ll be with you a long time. And be prepared to keep an eagle eye out for their progeny, since the birds do scatter the seeds. Pokeweed particularly likes rich, disturbed soil, for example, as Plants of the Chicago Region says, “woodland that has been heavily trampled, especially by hogs,” but also “roadsides disturbed by machinery...and where compost and other fertilizing materials have been scattered.” Right. Our gardens. And apparently on farms among no-tillage crops, according to the Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide.
About poke sallet
Once I discovered pokeweed in my garden, I got kind of excited. I’d heard you could eat it, and I’d heard that old song, "Poke Salad Annie." I’d also heard there were some rules about cooking it, maybe like rhubarb (eat the red stalks, but no part that’s green), or tomatoes (eat the fruit, but not the leaves). Some research yielded warnings: it wasn’t worth the risk and if you must try it, it should be very young plants under a foot high, with no red parts only and they should be boiled in three waters. That sounded like too much work to me, compared to fresh spinach or salad greens, so I never tried it.
People do eat pokeweed, however, in poke sallet or salat. Wikipedia says there are poke sallet festivals in Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky and Alabama. Coincidentally, as I was preparing this post, pokeweed got discussed in the comments section at the Archdruid Report. One commenter gave a recipe: “Folks in my area pick the young greens in spring (before there's any purple color), parboil and drain, then fry it up in bacon grease, though butter or olive oil will work (just ain't the same as bacon grease). Frying in a few shallots or ramps adds character. Delish!” And further mentioned that old-timers consider pokeberry wine to be good for arthritis.
This last got me curious. What have people used pokeweed for? Could I make some medicine for myself? Non-medicinal uses have included dyes and inks (used by some soldiers for writing letters home during the Civil War). American Indians decorated their horses with juice from the berries. Prior to paintball, children have conducted pokeweed berry wars (as another commenter remembered).
Pokeweed has also been used as a medicine, both externally and internally, for about as long as people have lived in North America. Numerous sources mention using extremely small quantities of a tincture of the root for the sorts of illnesses that might respond to antibiotics, or applying poultices or salve to treat inflammations or rashes. And eating the berries judiciously (no more than one a day for a limited duration) is supposed to be good as an immune system stimulant, and for arthritis.
All sources, however, stress that though effective, this is dangerous medicine indeed, and you need to know what you’re doing. Overdose symptoms can include, as in this informative article by biologist and herbalist Corinna Wood, “…mental unclarity, spaciness and out-of-body feelings….If you take way too much (such as mistaking droppersful for drops, which some people have done!), you may encounter more severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”
The American Cancer Society also reports here that, “some research has shown that a protein contained in pokeweed, called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP), has anti-tumor effects in mice and laboratory studies. In test tube studies, PAP has also shown action against viruses such as herpes and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV),” so it shows potential as an anti-viral and anti-cancer treatment and studies are ongoing.
Clearly, this is a weed with much potential.
However, there are reports that children have been poisoned and infants have died from eating the berries. Adults have been poisoned from improperly gathered and prepared shoots and leaves. The plant is toxic to grazers such as cattle and horses; pigs have died from eating the roots. (Other sources suggest that herbivores tend to shy away, owing to the plants' bad taste.) Not only does pokeweed contain oxalic acid (like the poisonous green leaves of rhubarb), but also saponins (phytolaccotoxin and phytolaccigenin) and an alkaloid (phytolaccin). The Ohio Weed Guide lists poisoning symptoms such as a “burning sensation in the mouth, salivation, gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhea” along with more severe effects “such as anemia, altered heart rate and respiration, convulsions and death from respiratory failure,” while the Cancer Society adds headaches, confusion, and blurred vision to the list. Edible wild plant expert Kay Young “suggests that anyone growing pokeweed as a garden plant should fence it off, to prevent humans, dogs, or cats from inadvertently getting into it,” according to a third commenter at Archdruid Report.
So what to do?
If you find pokeweed in your garden, you may decide to take it out, especially if you have young children, though I should add that dangers abound—lily of the valley is also poisonous, as is bleeding heart, and numerous other garden plants. Try to get it while it’s young. You may decide to let it be, especially if your garden is fairly large and/or somewhat wild and you are willing to supervise the pokeweed’s prolific ways. It all depends on how much control you think you should have over that space that legally may belong to you but where all the non-human living things carry on their business of knitting together the biosystem. I, myself, don’t plan to try eating it, and will leave its use as medicine to the experts. But I’ve let one grow in my prairie patch by the fence. It's quite a sight.
Note: Many thanks to GHung, Sgage and Tracy G for their informative comments. I hope you don't mind being quoted! All pictures come from Dr. John Hilty’s Illinois Wildflowers.