Having been raised in North Florida, by a family who has been in the South for many a generation (most of us are in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas), I was raised with a few Appalachian traditions. One of these traditions was “Poke Salat.” Now, my parents didn’t prepare this traditional dish, but I did hear about it quite often and some other family members did prepare it occasionally. Though it sounds like a springtime salad, it’s actually a pot of cooked greens. I promise you that if anyone ever serves you a salad and calls it Poke Salat, you should run away as fast as you can. This is because Pokeweed is highly toxic and it has to be cooked several times over in order to be edible.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a poisonous, herbaceous plant that has long been used for food and folk medicine in parts of eastern North America, the Midwest and the Gulf Coast where it is native. Poke is a member of the Phytolaccaceae (Pokeweed) family and is a perennial herb. It grows up to 11ft tall, though the variety commonly found in the South tends to stop at 8ft. Single alternate leaves are pointed at the end with crinkled edges and an unpleasant smell. The stems are green, pink, or red. Flowers greenish-white in long clusters at ends of stems that will develop into dark purple berries resembling blueberries or elderberries. Pokeroot is best dug up in the fall after the plant has died back for the winter. This is when the plant is the most medicinal and the least toxic. The next best time to dig the roots is in the early spring when the leaves are just coming out (as long as you're sure what you're picking!). The leaves and berries are harvested from Autumn to the following Spring and can be found in North & South America, East Asia & New Zealand. Though it has become naturalized all over Europe. It’s often found on edges of fields or cleared lands and roadsides. Pokeweed poisonings were common in eastern North America during the 19th century. The roots were often mistaken for parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, or horseradish. The berries are often mistaken for elderberries. Use caution! And remember, if you’re not 100% sure of your identification, DON’T consume/use the plant!
Poke is predominately toxic to mammals, though some small mammals have a resistance to the toxin. The berries are an important food source for birds and can be eaten by them because the small seeds hard outer shell simply passes through the birds' digestive system. It’s also a valuable host plant for a number of butterfly species found here in Florida.
I recently filmed a video about this beautiful plant.
Common Names- Poke, Pokeweed, Poke Salet, American Pokeweed, Cancer-root, Cancer Jalap, Inkberry, Pigeon Berry, Pocan, Poke, Poke Root, Pokeberry, Reujin D Ours, Sekerciboyaci, Skoke, Virginian Poke, Yoshu-Yama-Gobo, Yyamilin
Scientific Name- Phytolacca americana and P. acinosa
Edibility- Pokeweed is edible when cooked properly. The young shoots and leaves are boiled in two changes of water. The leaves taste similar to spinach and the shoots taste similar to asparagus. Properly cooked Poke is known as "Poke Salet," not Poke Salad as it is commonly called. Poke berries are cooked and the resulting liquid used to color canned fruits and vegetables. Caution is advised as the whole plant is poisonous raw, causing vomiting and diarrhea.
Summary of Actions- Alterative, anodyne, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic, antiseptic, antitumor, antitussive, antiviral, cathartic, detoxifying, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, hypnotic, lymphagogue, narcotic, purgative, and resolvent.
Energetics- Acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter. The root is slightly cooling and drying. The berries are slightly warming.
Parts Used- Leaves, Berry, and Root
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)- Known as Shang Lu, Poke affects the liver, spleen, bladder, and small intestine meridians. It clears toxins, reducing the swelling associated with goiters, arthritis, neuralgias, breast lumps and tumors, eczema, skin dermatitis, ulcers, and similar wounds. Shang Lu removes statis, especially when associated with abdominal distension, nausea, heavy feelings, moodiness, and constipation. It also clears up Liver Qi stagnation, which is commonly associated with breast lumps, tumors, acute mastitis, as well as chronic benign and malignant lumps. Like in Western Herbalism, Shang Lu is considered to be drastically purgative.
Traditional Native American Uses- Some Native American tribes used Pokeweed as a purgative (to stimulate bowel clearance) and an emetic (to promote vomiting). Many traditional cultures believe that doing so "cleanses" the body, expels bad spirits. The fruit was made into a red dye used in painting horses and various articles of adornment. The Delaware Indians were likely the first to prescribe pokeweed in medicine, using it as a cardiac stimulant. Indians of the Rocky Mountain region used pokeweed to treat epilepsy, anxiety, and neurological disorders. The Pah-Utes fermented berries in water to make a narcotic tea. The Cherokee used poke in a number of different ways. The leaves were often combined with Lemon Balm and made into a tea to reduce phlegm and calm the chest when there was a cold our cough. The root was used as a blood purifier and antibiotic. It was considered especially potent in treating kidney infections. It was also used to increase metabolism.
Antibiotic- Most herbalists turn to Goldenseal for its use as an antibiotic. However, it’s an endangered species. Pokeweed is also a great antibiotic with many of the same properties, but as a bonus, it’s not endangered. It’s often considered a problematic weed in the South.
Lyme Disease- I know of several herbalists who have successfully used a tincture made from the root to treat Lyme disease.
Rheumatism & Fibromyalgia- Some modern experts believe that rheumatism was used as a blanket term for several issues in older medical texts. One of these issues is believed to be fibromyalgia. Most older medical texts that include the use of Poke have described it as being fairly effective in the treatment of rheumatism. The berries were consumed whole or a tea made from the leaves was drunk for this purpose. Sometimes Prickly Ash was added to the tea for rheumatism.
Endocrine Regulator- Poke helps to regulate your hormones. It has the most profound effect on the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, and sex glands. This makes it a prime herb to use in cases of sterility, impotence, low sperm count, and prostate issues.
Skin Conditions- Pokeweed has frequently been used in folk medicine to treat skin conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, and scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck). However, caution should be used with this plant as the sap can cause irritation, swelling, and an itchy rash in people with sensitive skin. Despite that, it is believed to have amazing anti-inflammatory effects that may help relieve localized pain and swelling.
Detoxifying- It is one of the strongest herbs known to promote cleansing and clear toxemia that also acts on the glands. Because of this, it has a long history of use for detoxifying the blood and body.
Thyroid- Poke is an old-time Appalachian remedy for hypothyroidism, especially goiter.
Auto-immune Disease- The root is taken internally in the treatment of auto-immune diseases (especially rheumatoid arthritis), tonsillitis, mumps, glandular fever and other complaints involving swollen glands, chronic catarrh, bronchitis etc.
Dye, Ink, & Food Coloring- A rich brown dye can be made by soaking fabric in fermenting berries in hollowed out pumpkin. Using the fermented berries, without the pumpkin, yields a pink-ish red dye. It was often used as red ink or dye in the civil war era. Many letters written home during the civil war were written in pokeberry ink, which now appears as brown ink. Pokeberry has also been used as a red food coloring and as a wine coloring agent.
Toxicity and Dosage- It is a strong herb so dosages must be monitored and respected. (Even just one to two drops of tincture is enough and not more than ten drops is recommended.) Because it is so strong it is usually used in combination with other herbs that can help soften its approach without lessening its properties. In Appalachian folk medicine, the berries are swallowed as a treatment for arthritis and for immune stimulation. Only swallow one berry (either fresh or dried) at a time. One berry is the equivalent of one drop of root tincture. At doses of 1 g, dried poke root is emetic and purgative. At lower doses of 60 to 100 mg/day, the root and berries have been used to treat rheumatism and for immune stimulation; however, there are no clinical trials that support these uses or doses.
Side Effects- Individuals show widely varying tolerance for poke. Some people can't handle more than three or five drops per day, while others can take 25 or 50 drops with no adverse effects. The side effects of poke include mental unclarity, spaciness, and out-of-body feelings. If you notice such feelings, it means you've found your tolerance level, so back off to a lower dosage. If you take way too much (such as mistaking dropperful for drops, which some people have done!), you may encounter more severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- All parts of the plant are toxic with roots being the most toxic, stems and leaves are less so and the least toxic is the fruit. The raw berry is toxic. If cooked improperly the juice from the leaves can cause severe stomach cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, convulsions, death. The plant sap can cause dermatitis in sensitive people. The plant contains substances that cause cell division and can damage chromosomes. These substances can be absorbed through any abrasions in the skin, potentially causing serious blood aberrations, and so it is strongly recommended that the people wear gloves when handling the plant. Do not use this plat during pregnancy! Ingestion of poisonous parts of the plant may cause severe stomach cramping, nausea with persistent diarrhea and vomiting, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, hypotension, severe convulsions, and death.
I only included a basic introduction to this wonderful Appalachian herb. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adventures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!
Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere: American Indian Health and Diet Project: http://www.aihd.ku.edu/foods/pokeweed.html#:~:text=Uses,to%20humans%20and%20some%20animals.
The Health Benefits of Pokeweed: Very Well Health: https://www.verywellhealth.com/can-pokeweed-provide-health-benefits-4587368
Poke: Southeast Wise Women: https://www.sewisewomen.com/poke
Poke (Shang Lu): White Rabbit Institute of Healing: https://www.whiterabbitinstituteofhealing.com/herbs/poke/
Pokeweed: Drugs.com: https://www.drugs.com/npp/pokeweed.html
Pokeweed: Natural Medicinal Herbs: http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/herbs/p/phytolacca-americana=pokeweed.php
Pokeweed, An Herb For All Things Pokey: The Herbwife’s Kitchen: http://crabappleherbs.com/blog/2007/07/31/pokeweed-an-herb-for-all-things-pokey/comment-page-2/
Pokeweed Herb: Alternative Nature Online Herbal: https://altnature.com/gallery/pokeweed.htm