Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it…
Carry it home and cook it for supper, ’cause that’s about all they had to eat. But they did all right.
Had I only received the gift of poke alone during my sojourn at Earthaven, it would have been enough. I have been an herbalist and an alternative medicine user for many many years. And still, I missed out on a plant that has quickly become an integral part of my herbal medicine chest. Pokeweed has been surrounded by Appalachian lore going back to the native Indians, then embraced by the hill and hollow folk. To this day, much fearful misinformation is spread by more official channels, but the ranks of poke friends and admirers is growing. Permit me to introduce you to Phytolacca americana, also known as inkberry, pokeberry, pocan, and many other names.
Poke is nothing if not flamboyant. Massive convoluted roots shoot up tall, thick reddish stems by late spring, singly or in thickets. White pendulous flower clusters follow quickly, and from midsummer to frost, the plants are weighed down by a profusion of dark purple berries. It dies back in late fall.
Squish a handful of berries and you’ve just created unparalleled body paint of iridescent purple. When Earthaven celebrated the anniversary of its founding last September, a jolly procession of pokejuice-enhanced humans walked from the Gateway Barn to the Village Green while longtime residents recalled the history of landmarks along the way. Poke obliges by easily washing out with soap and water. (Some fiber artisans are using it as a natural dye; it needs a mordant to set the color.)
Before proceeding further, I want to acquaint you with my off-the-cuff classification of plants and fungi in relation to their safety.
The noble poke falls in Category C. Some parts of the plant can make a person briefly, intensely ill. The internet reports a death of a small child from crunching on the seeds. (To put this in perspective: the tomato plant has caused several deaths of people eating the leaves.) The plant has not been carefully researched yet; as a result, the sources report its ready use as salad, wine, and the remedy for a variety of ailments on one end, and warn in dire tones against its use on the other end of the spectrum.
A brief overview:
Spring shoots are commonly eaten in the South as poke salad or sallet; be sure of your identification as confusion with other plants can be hazardous. Parboil twice and throw the water away before cooking for the table.
The berries have been commonly eaten in Appalachia as an arthritis preventive (one berry a day is commonly recommended but some people on the web have reported eating many more, swallowing the berry whole). The taste is sweet but a bit peculiar. Old timers often made pokeberry wine and jelly; in Europe the berries have been used as wine coloring. It is unclear if any toxicities are connected with the berries. I have tasted them without any effects. Some people think the berries are not toxic at all, others think that cooking neutralizes the toxic substances. The seeds are said to be quite toxic, but are filtered out in the processing. (Contrariwise, some adults on the internet have reported crunching some seeds by mistake, without ill effects. It may be a matter of quantity.)
The root is the remedy most commonly used. Various sources list the primary effects as anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, lymphatic cleanser, immune system booster, anti-inflammatory, emetic, cathartic and alterative.
For folks wishing to peruse a few detailed articles, here are some links:
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Corinna Wood’s account
A medical case study of yew and poke in lymphoma
A lay compilation of many studies and other information on poke
Both root tincture and salve are available on the internet. So far, I have not seen any commercial berry-based preparations.
Shortly after coming to Earthaven, I had a lovely conversation with one of the herbalists there. We shared our favorite remedies, as well as medical errors we’ve endured, and information about chronic medical issues that are not curable within the mainstream medical model. For me, that would be lymphoma. When my new acquaintance heard about it, she immediately suggested I look into poke. There has been a remarkable full recovery reported on the internet (the original article I read is no longer available, but an abbreviated version still exists). This story was confirmed by another herbalist at EH who knows the woman personally, and if need be, can get me in touch with her. I looked up the woman’s intriguing tale, did some research, and determined to enter into a relationship with the poke plant and to begin — what fun! — experimenting.
My first experiment with the berries was on my skin. I did not find it useful against dyshidrotic eczema. But as I was suffering at the time from post-herpetic neuralgia (a chronic annoyance years past the outbreak of shingles) I tried rubbing the juice into the tiny burny-itchy bumps. It acted fast, and is the best remedy I have ever found for this condition (and I had tried several). Poke is the most powerful antiviral in my herbal medicine chest.
Then I bought a root tincture and began to use it very cautiously as recommended: one drop in water per day, then two drops, working up to maybe 10-15 drops and cycling down. I noticed that the swollen glands in my neck, probably related to some mild infection, went down. Intriguingly, I noticed that my body temperature seemed to have gone up — I am chronically cold because of hypothyroidism. Later, I found that poke is reputed to boost the function of the thyroid gland. At these doses, I experienced no untoward symptoms. I grew impatient. I had also heard that possibly, fresh poke root is the most potent.
Subsequently the spirit of poke led me toward a few heroic doses. The root is best harvested at the end of the season, after first hard frost, and when the time came, lacking a juicer, I cut off a 1/4 inch piece of the root, chewed it and swallowed the juice. (It tastes strong, unpleasant, acrid, and kills the taste buds for a few days.) About two hours later, the vomits started, as well as the diarrhea and the chills, and continued for 2-3 hours. It was a fairly miserable experience, but by morning, I felt great, and a slight swelling I had in my groin (yes, that would be the lymphoma) seemed to have alleviated. I gained energy and strength as well.
I doubled the dose a month later. The experience was much the same, except I felt sicker, and the malaise lingered into the next day. I felt I reached the limit of my heroic dose, and would try lower doses in the future. I do not recommend chewing on the root at all. The woman in the story juiced the root with carrots, and that would certainly help with the taste issues. Root tincture is easy to make: slice up a piece of the root in the fall, let sit in 80 proof vodka for several weeks, shaking occasionally, filter through a jelly bag and store in a dark glass bottle.
I also made poke vinegar from the berries in order to preserve their healing properties past their season. (Drying is not a good option.) The red vinegar (made by soaking the berries for three weeks in apple cider vinegar and filtering through a jelly bag) has stood me in good stead whenever I still experience the neuralgia, and I plan to test whether with more sustained use, it will go away for good. It certainly comes far less frequently now.
I am planning to experiment with using the berries for an arthritis remedy, in the form of vinegar prepared with greater care for internal use. And I want to mention that a woman neighbor at EH heard of my experimentation with poke, and tried the root tincture for her venous eczema (itchy, dry, discolored skin around the ankle area that frequently plagues the elder population). She told me with a smile that it largely cleared up.
When I saw my oncologist this spring, I was treated to the news of full remission. I had been very close before, but in the year and a half since my last ct scan, the areas in question shrank even more, and remarkably, so did my liver that had had a lesion in it once, but more recently kept showing up on the scans as “unremarkable.” I had not used any alternative (or mainstream) treatment against the lymphoma during this time, and I am encouraged that poke has played a positive role in my further healing. I have not felt this well in many many years, and I am tremendously grateful to my new plant teacher I met so felicitously at Earthaven.
Hail the good poke, a weed for all seasons!