By Jill Henderson
For those who like to eat on the wild side, one should become well acquainted with a plethora of wild greens such as black mustard, dock, chickweed, henbit, lambs quarters and pokeweed. The latter, better known simply as poke, is a favorite spring green here in the Ozarks.
The fresh, young leaves are gathered in spring soon after they emerge and are gently simmered in two changes of water until tender. The finished product resembles cooked spinach, but the texture is incomparably creamy and the flavor is richly reminiscent of asparagus. This quaint country dish was once known as poke salat, which is slang. It is so good that, at our house, this leafy perennial ranks right up there with other high-caliber spring edibles.
Know Your Poke
Pokeweed belongs to the Phytolaccaceae family, which contains 16 genera and hundreds of species. Some of these species have colorful and descriptive names such as Inkberry, Redweed and Red Ink Plant, to name a few.
The poke I’ll be discussing in this article is good ol’ American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) — or poke, for short.
Poke occurs naturally throughout the Americas, Eastern Asia and New Zealand. In the United States, it is native to all but seven states including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Although it grows best in rich moist soils, pokeweed fulfills its weedy reputation by growing just about anywhere it can get a foothold.
As a perennial herbaceous plant, poke can reach heights of 3-10 feet tall with branching stems that can extend 5 feet or more in diameter. In fact, poke can appear to be a small tree or branching shrub when fully mature. The smooth green, 3-16-inch long leaves are borne alternately on long, fleshy petioles and have distinct veins and wavy edges. In mid-summer, long greenish-white inflorescences develop and are quickly followed by grape-like clusters of slightly flattened green berries that ripen to a rich purple-black.
Each plant produces a prolific number of these drooping fruit clusters, which is when most people notice the plant in the wild.
As you might imagine, the glorious display of lusciously abundant poke berries really grabs one’s attention. The juices from the ripe berries leave a lasting red dye on skin and clothes. Various Native American tribes used the juice to make paint and dye for decorating baskets, clothes, skin and hair.
Early settlers were known to use the strained and cooked juice for making jelly, but today the use or consumption of the berries is not recommended.
Even with that warning, I know a number of old-timers who still swear by eating a single ripe poke berry each year to ward off arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments.
While some don’t see the berries as too dangerous, if you have kids, I would most decidedly forbid the eating of, or playing with, poke berries.
And while I am not suggesting their use, modern day sources indicate that the berries are actually the least toxic part of the plant, followed in order by the leaves and stems, with the root being the most toxic. And while most of the compounds and chemicals in poke are not poisonous, some most definitely are. These dangerous phytochemicals are emetic, cathartic and possibly narcotic.
For owners of livestock, poke should be eradicated from fields and field edges. A Penn State Extension Office weed identification fact sheet on pokeweed advises: “Mature pokeweed contains a poisonous chemical compound called phytolaccatoxin. One of the ingredients that makes this compound so toxic is saponin, a soap-like substance found in some poisonous plants, including foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), corn cockle (Agrostemma githago), bitterweed (Actinea odorata) and bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis). Pregnant cows have been known to miscarry from eating the mature leaves and stems of pokeweed. Generally speaking, though, livestock are rarely tempted to eat these extremely bitter top parts. The roots are the most toxic part of the plant, and pigs have been poisoned after digging them up and eating them.”
On the other hand, many wild birds and some domestic fowl absolutely love raw pokeberries — seeds and all. My ducks would happily follow me anywhere as long as I had a handful of pokeberries, but the chickens could care less. It seems that cattle are affected when they eat the raw, mature leaves and pigs are harmed when they eat the raw roots.
And as far as I know, there have been no deaths attributed to cooked pokeweed leaves. In fact, there has never been a single human study on the toxicity of prepared pokeweed leaves, nor any performed on the health effects of eating them in seasonal moderation.
So how can a plant be safe to eat and toxic at the same time? As an herbalist and wildcrafter, I often have to address this question. When one is facing a plant that has been defined as being “toxic,” it is natural for the mind to associate that term with the word “poison.” To the rational mind, toxins are poisons and poisons are lethal. So often when we hear these words, our thoughts immediately turn to herbicides, pesticides, industrial cleaners, nuclear waste and so on. Yet, we often find those exact terms used to describe products such as prescription drugs, over-the-counter pain relievers and cough medicines. Of course, we know these products are potentially toxic if used incorrectly, yet they are also used to heal.
But what if you heard those words being used to describe common foods like cherries, broccoli, lettuce and carrots?
Would you walk away from them forever because they are potentially toxic? Well, cherry seeds contain hydrocyanic acid and broccoli contains neochlorgenic acid. Lettuce, carrots, apples, celery, and eggplant all contain caffeic acid. Every one of these common vegetables contains what the FDA calls “potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds.” In a nutshell, they are “potentially toxic.”
It’s a conundrum of the greatest sort. However, once you check your facts, you will find it easy to decide what is right for you. It would take an awful lot of broccoli to create a toxic reaction in a normal, healthy individual with no allergies to it, and you would need to eat a massive quantity of cherry pits to cause cyanide poisoning.
So the first lesson on “potential toxicity” starts with education and moderation. Properly preparing foods and consuming them in realistic quantities can go a long way in preventing problems and pokeweed greens are no exception to this rule.
When pokeweed leaves are thoroughly cooked in two changes of water to remove the sticky white latex-like juice that contains the toxic compounds and eaten in moderation, poke has some very admirable qualities as a healthful green. According to various sources, 100 grams of leafy shoots contain 31 g protein, 4.8 g fat, 44 g carbohydrates, 631 mg calcium, 524 mg phosphorus and 20.2 mg of iron. It also boasts high levels of vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6 and niacin.
In addition to these healthful properties, pokeweed is a natural and gentle cathartic, which actually increases the elimination of bodily wastes. In other words, poke helps you “go.”
So we have the edible portion of poke — the young, tender leaves and shoots cooked in two changes of water — and the inedible portion of poke, the raw leaves and stems, particularly the mature ones, as well as the seeds and the roots. All of these plant parts in their natural form are not just potentially toxic, but truly dangerous.
Yet, the roots and dried raw leaves of poke are used medicinally (but not by laymen). In fact, one of the preeminent toxins produced by poke is now being studied as a strong antiviral agent to be used in the fight against AIDS. Another phytochemical present in poke is oleanolic acid, which is well-known for its anti-cancer and anti-mutagenic properties. Even after a brief search, I found so many clinical studies and potential medicinal uses for the phytochemicals present in pokeweed, that I could not possibly cover them all in one article. And that is how a plant, or a food, can be a good green and a toxic weed.
Look Before You Leap
So perhaps you’ve decided that you’d like to try some poke salat for yourself, but before you set out to gather or eat any wild edible, including pokeweed, you should first learn to correctly identify it. If you cannot positively identify it, do not harvest it.
Instead, mark the location of the plant with a flag or other marker. Return to the plant at various times during the growing season and observe its flowers and fruit. Almost all plants can be positively identified by their fruits and flowers. The safe foraging rule goes something like this: It is always better to miss out on a harvest than to misidentify the plant and never get the chance to make that mistake again.
Once you decide to search for poke, start looking for the newly emerging plants from late March to late May, depending on where you live. Scout in areas of disturbed soil, unkempt pastures, weedy fence lines, overgrown fields, pond and forest edges and along country roads that are frequently graded.
Be sure to avoid those found along busy highways and roadsides, as these areas are prone to high levels of auto exhaust, herbicides and pesticides. Also, when hunting poke, don’t look for the giant plant that it will soon become, but rather, search for small rosettes of leaves and short leafy plants that have recently emerged from their perennial rootstocks.
The rule of thumb is to only harvest poke from young plants whose stalks are no taller than your knees. And remember, the roots and berries should never be eaten at any stage.
For first-time poke hunters, I strongly recommend locating a good stand in late summer or early fall by searching for their telltale purple stems and dark purple-black berries.
Identifying the plant in its mature phase is much easier than identifying it in its early one. Mark the base of the mature plant with lineman’s flags, painted sticks or rock cairns. This way, when you return to the spot the following spring, you will be sure that what you are collecting is indeed pokeweed. Once you have seen young pokeweed growing, you will probably never forget its distinctive look and will not need to repeat the marking process again. This is an excellent identification method to use for any unfamiliar wild plant meant for consumption.
To harvest poke, use a small, sharp knife to cut off the leaves and, if you like, several inches of the very thinnest upper stems. If the plant is only 8 or 10 inches tall, you can harvest most of the aboveground portions.
Be sure to leave about 4 inches of the main trunk intact, preferably with a few leaves remaining. This is partly to avoid any possibility of getting a bit of root by mistake and to give the plant the resources it needs to continue growing after harvest.
Poke cooks down like spinach or kale. So, depending on the plant’s age and height at harvest, you may need to find several plants in order to get enough leaves to make a full meal.
Once you get your poke home, wash the lot in water and sort out any undesirable bits before draining. If you like, the leaves can be chopped coarsely and the stems left whole, like asparagus.
Put the greens in a large soup pot and add cold water to cover. Mash the leaves down a bit while adding the water to reduce the amount of water needed. Bring the pot to a boil and press and stir the greens as necessary.
Simmer 3-5 minutes and then drain the water. Once drained, add fresh cold water and bring the poke to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes and drain thoroughly.
If you would like to preserve some or all of a large harvest, let the drained poke cool before packing it into freezer bags. To heat, simply thaw the poke and bring to a simmer before seasoning. Most people feel that two changes of water are sufficient, but if you are nervous about trying poke, or if you have gathered some that isn’t very young, you can boil it a third time.
Once the leaves are completely wilted and the thickest stems are fork-tender, drain off as much of the liquid as you can and discard it. Do not consume or reuse the cooking water.
Now that your poke is cooked, you have to decide how to dress it. Some folks like their poke with a bit of cider vinegar sprinkled over the top, while others prefer just a pat of whole cream butter. I am from the Deep South and no green would be quite right without a generous daub of salted butter and freshly rendered bacon fat, with salt and pepper to taste, the bacon crumbled on top.
If you really want to impress your kin with a dish of poke, serve it with a big bowl of crowder peas and a skillet of old-fashioned cornbread!
So, is poke a good green or a toxic weed? The answer is, it’s both. And while it should be painfully clear that I am a huge fan of pokeweed, both in the garden and on my plate; I also fully respect its potential danger. I also appreciate the beauty of this beautiful native plant and the benefits it brings to wildlife, as well as to my finicky flat-footed farm friends. I love that the butterflies and moths flock to its flowers in droves and songbirds fill their bellies with the fat ripe berries and that the native passion fruit vine in my backyard loves to climb into its supportive branches.
For me, poke is a beautiful and hardy native perennial that can, and should, be put to better use as an ornamental vegetable that can play an important role in food forests and permaculture designs around the globe.
By Jill Henderson. This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is currently the editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.