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 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.
To 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!
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
Copyright Jill Henderson – All Rights Reserved
This article is an excerpt from:
A Journey of Seasons:
A Year in the Ozark High Country
by Jill Henderson.
Find it in our bookstore!