A Walk on the Wild Side: Pokeweed

"Pokeweed" Copyright 2008 Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson

April does something me that no other month can, probably because I was born under her stars.  The lengthening days and warm, stormy weather bring a rush of growth in my garden and throughout the woods and fields.  And for those Ozarkers who like to eat on the wild side, the warmer weather is more than accommodating, as the wild greens of black mustard, dock, lambs quarters and poke are already up and at their peak of flavor.   Pokeweed, better known as poke, is one of our favorite spring greens and when cooked properly, nothing beats it for a scrumptious pot herb.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a large herbaceous plant which emerges from over-wintered rootstalks and eventually reaches heights of up to eight feet. When mature, the large dark green, pointed leaves grow on almost fuchsia-colored stems. After they finish blooming, poke plants simply drip with grape-like clusters of ¼” round, blackish-red berries that leave a lasting red dye on skin and clothes. These berries were once used by Native Americans to make paint and dye for art, baskets, clothes, skin and hair. And although the berries were once used for medicinal purposes, they are no longer recommended as such because they are slightly toxic in large numbers. Despite this fact, many Ozarkers still swear by eating a single ripe poke berry every year to ward off arthritis and rheumatism.

While all parts of poke, including berries, stems, leaves and roots are considered Copyright 2009  H. Zell (via Wikimedia Commons)poisonous, the very young leaves and stems can be made edible by cooking them in two changes of water to remove the toxic, milky latex-like substance in the leaves and stems. After cooking this way, the young stems become deliciously tender and creamy and, with a liberal application of butter and salt, taste a lot like asparagus. The leaves of poke are best known by the German moniker “poke salat”, or poke salad. And after they have been cooked, the flavor is reminiscent of leaf spinach or some other dark, leafy greens.

Poke can be found growing almost anywhere in the Ozarks, but it prefers disturbed soil in pastures, fields, pond edges and along country roads that are frequently graded. If you plan on harvesting poke, avoid those found along roadsides, as these areas are prone to high levels of auto exhaust, herbicides and pesticides. When hunting poke, don’t look for the giant plant that it will soon become, but rather, search out plants that have recently emerged from the ground and those just beginning to open their leaves. Care should be taken not to pick poke once the stalks reach about two feet tall. And the best time to hunt for this nutritious and delicious wild edible is from late March to late May. But remember, the roots and berries should not be eaten at any stage.

For first-time wild edible hunters, I strongly recommend locating a good stand of poke in late summer or early fall by looking for its telltale purple stems and berries. Identifying the plant in its mature phase is easier than identifying it in its early one. Mark the base of the mature plant with sticks or rocks, so that when you return next spring you will be sure that what you are collecting is indeed poke. And once you have seen young pokeweed growing, you will never forget its distinctive look and will not need to repeat the marking again. This is a good method to use whenever picking unfamiliar wild plants for consumption.

"Harvesting Pokeweed" Copyright 2008 Jill HendersonTo harvest poke, remove the young leafy tops with several inches of thin stems still attached. You may need to find several plants to get enough to make a meal. Once home, wash the lot in clear water and if you like, the leaves can be chopped coarsely and the stems left whole, like asparagus. In a large pot, bring enough water to cover the greens to a boil and put the poke into the boiling water. After 3 or 4 minutes, drain the water and repeat once more with fresh boiling water. Simmer until tender, about ten minutes. Some people feel two changes of water are enough, but if you are a bit nervous about trying poke, or if you have gathered some that isn’t very young, you may parboil it a third time before simmering.

Once the stems are fork-tender, drain off most of the liquid and discard it. 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 on top, while others prefer a pat of whole cream butter. I am from the deep-south and no green would be quite right without a little fresh bacon fat stirred in and a few crisp crumbles on top. Sprinkle the poke generously with salt and pepper to taste and serve as hot as possible.  If you really want to impress your kin with a dish of poke, serve it with a big bowl of black eyed peas and a skillet of old-fashioned country corn bread!

Now that’s good eatin’ Ozark-style!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
Copyright Jill Henderson – All Rights Reserved

AJOS front cover lg 300 dpi 50 percentThis article is an excerpt from:
A Journey of Seasons:
A Year in the Ozark High Country
by Jill Henderson.  

Find it in our bookstore!

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12 responses to “A Walk on the Wild Side: Pokeweed

  1. Happy Birthday just past dear Jill – I remembered and then forgot! You do indeed have the nicest of all Ozark months. And this post is timed perfectly for me as I’m noting how many clusters of green poke leaves are coming up in areas where the storm came through the forest a couple of years back. I love this plant – for the wonderful spinach-like greens and also for the decorative jewels that are those dripping berries on arching stems that you describe. I’ve ‘cultivated’ them for their artistic beauty in a few spaces … but the rest will be eaten.

  2. Thank you for the birthday wishes, Sara! Like you, I always loved having a few mature poke plants around the yard. They really are quite striking – and heat, drought and insects are rarely a problem. Just have to make sure the little ones know not to eat those pretty berries!

  3. Thanks for this article. It was timely, since I’m preparing one on pokeweed for backyard native plant lovers. I’ve always been a little shy about cooking up a a mess of these greens, but I think I might try it next spring. One thing I’ve read, though, is that it can be dangerous for little kids, since those berries look pretty tasty. Apparently there have been a few cases of bad poisoning from children eating them. Again, very nice article!

    • Thanks, Randy. I definitely understand your concern.

      All parts of raw, uncooked pokeweed contain the toxic sapponins phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin. But the it is the roots that have the highest toxicity levels (and should never be eaten in any form), followed by the stems and leaves. Oddly enough, the berry actually contains the least amount of toxins. That does not mean that they wouldn’t make a child (or an adult) sick if enough of the raw berries are eaten.

      As a precaution, those living around wild populations or intentionally cultivating pokeweed should educate young ones as to the dangers of the berries or avoid growing the plant. In addition, anyone assumed to be suffering from poisioning due to consumtion of the raw parts of pokeberry should not be made to throw up and should contact The National Poison Control Center 1-800-222-1222 for advice, or visit the emergency room for possible treatment.

      That being said, young poke leaves cooked in at least two changes of water are both nutritious and delicious. I think once you’ve tried them, you’ll never look at this plant the same again.

      Thanks for your question. Happy gardening!

  4. This is undoubtedly the best article I’ve read on preparing poke to eat. I am 64 years old and have been eating poke for as long as I can remember, with no ill effects. Mom did the cooking when I was young and she watched the boiling process carefully so as not to overcook, cooking only long enough to be tender. She would then discard the water, drag out her iron skillet, cook a few strips of bacon, and simmer the poke in the bacon grease. You are right, poke takes salt to bring out the flavor. If you boil the poke, changing the water two or three times, you have destroyed the flavor and might as well be cooking crabgrass! By the way, I was surfing the web to find info on propagating poke. I live in the country, but not much poke grows around here. I have been digging up the roots when I find them and transplanting them along the border of a wooded area. This has been working pretty well, but now I am going to try propagating from seed. Thanks again for your article.

    • Thanks, Pete. I am so glad to hear that you liked the article. It’s such a wonderful spring potherb, I have often wondered why more people don’t eat it! I’m sure many people just never learned about this tasty, and quite beautiful, native edible. I can just imagine what your mother’s kitchen smelled like as she cooked up a mess of poke. Mmmm.

      And while I’ve never had a need to propagate poke from seed, I imagine it will work just fine. Perhaps you might try sowing at least a few of your seeds directly in the ground before winter arrives as they may need stratification (a dormant period of moist, cold) to germinate. This way you can hedge your bets and still have plenty left over come springtime if you want to sow some then as well.

      Thank you again for the kind words. Please let us know how your seed trial goes and enjoy that wonderful poke!

  5. When I first arrived in the Ozarks nearly a decade ago, poke was a wonder to me. Something wild and plentiful that tastes better than spinach. I also recall reading that at one time it was the most exported medicinal to Europe from North America.

    On Pete’s comment about cultivation: When I moved from creek-side pastureland to the middle of the forest I was disappointed to find no poke. But, as I mentioned earlier, then we suffered severe damage from a storm losing many trees. Poke popped up everywhere! All by itself.

    LIke burnweed and horseweed, it loves ‘disturbed’ open land. So maybe, just clearing and turning over a patch where you’d like poke to be would call it in. I’ve discovered though that deer also love it and prune it rather more than I’d like.

    • Thanks, Sara. The Ozarks were my first introduction to poke as well. But until you told me, I hadn’t heard that it was so widely exported to Europe. That’s a very interesting tidbit. And you’re absolutely right about poke growing on disturbed land. It seems to grow in the worst possible places! The biggest poke plant I ever saw is currently growing from a dry, hard-packed, solid-clay berm on a slope and it’s doing this while also supporting a large fruiting passionfruit vine! Absolutely amazing. My only regret is that poke isn’t edible all year long!

  6. did you know poke root smashed and boiled them applied to skin and hair kills and repels mites and other biting no see em bugs I learn this from a civil war book

  7. I ate polk roots boiled and prepared like mashed potatoes. Never suffered any ill effects. They taste like potatoes. Can you comment about any others who have done this?

    • Hi, Toby. I don’t know any wild forager who eats or recommends eating poke root. Please be very aware that the roots of this plant can be dangerous. The most toxic part of pokeweed is the root and the seeds, which contain poison alkaloids (phytolaccine), resins (phytolaccatoxin), and saponins (phytolaccigenin) and a very toxic plant protein called a lectin, which are known to cause red blood cells to clump together (agglutinate) and may stimulate abnormal cell division. The world’s deadliest seeds – castor bean (Ricinus communis) and prayer bead (Abrus precatorius)- also contain lectins. These toxins can cause convulsions, diarrhea, headache, heart block, low blood pressure, muscle spasms, nausea, rapid pulse, seizures, slow or difficult breathing, stomach pain, vomiting and weakness. (paraphrased for brevity’s sake from http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph24.htm and http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/pokeweed respectively).

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