Pokeweed: Good Green or Toxic Weed?

Poke Salat copyright Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –

Spring in the Ozarks wouldn’t be the same without gathering and preparing at least one pot of poke.  At our house, this leafy perennial ranks right up there with other spring edibles such as asparagus.  This week I was planning on writing an article on how to prepare poke for consumption, when  a colleague pointed out an article written by Dr. Jean Weese, a Food Scientist with the  Alabama Cooperative Extension Service entitled, Don’t Eat Poke Salad.  As the title suggests, Dr. Weese attempts to dissuade people from eating poke in any form, noting that it contains “at least three different types of poison”.  The controversy over whether poke’s is toxic or edible has been going on for a very long time, but who is right?  Is poke poisonous or is it safe to eat?  Fodder for this week’s Show Me Oz.

When I speak of poke, I am referring to the native plant, American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) also known simply as pokeweed – poke, for short.  This plant belongs to a large family of plant known as Phytolaccaceae.  All of the plants in this family are known collectively as pokeweed.  These plants occur naturally throughout the Americas, Eastern Asia and New Zealand.  Various parts of this plant have been used for thousands of years for food, medicine, poisons and natural dyes.

Cooking Pokeweed copyright Jill HendersonAs an edible wild plant, poke is most commonly consumed by residents of the south and south-eastern states who gather fresh, young leaves in spring and gently simmer them in  two changes of water until tender.  The pot herb resembles cooked spinach, but the texture is incomparably creamy and the flavor is richly reminiscent of asparagus.  This dish is also called poke salat (a colloquial word for “salad”).   There are lots of reports of people juicing the berries (discarding the seeds, which are definitely toxic in large amounts) for making jams or pies, but I have never personally known anyone who has done this.  The roots and seeds contain large concentrations of toxins and should never be consumed.

Before you decide to gather or eat any wild edible, including pokeweed, you must first learn to correctly identify it.  To find out how to identify poke, read my previous article on poke, A Walk on the Wild Side: Pokeweed.

Obviously, thetoxicity of pokeweed is a controversial subject.  When I come across an article that suggests that poke should never be consumed by humans in any form, it is usually followed by a  list of scary sounding chemicals and compounds.  And while most of the compounds and chemicals in poke are not poisonous –  some are.   These phytochemicals are emetic, cathartic, and possibly narcotic.  Young children should definitely be taught to avoid eating the berries.  For more information, you can read more about the constituents of pokeweed on the Wikimedia page Phytolacca americana.

That being said, poke has always been and is still being consumed throughout the world wherever it occurs naturally.  No scientific study has ever been done on the “toxicity” of prepared pokeweed leaves when eaten in seasonal moderation.  I feel that it is important to keep in mind that many common fruits, vegetables and herbs contain moderate amounts of potentially toxic substances.  I have specifically addressed the issue of mild toxicity in foods and herbs in my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, I which I say:

Upon hearing the word toxic, our minds tend to translate the word into “poison,” and that is a natural thing to do. To our thinking, toxic often means lethal and can range from yard chemicals and household cleaners to prescription drugs. But did you know that many common foods are considered “potentially toxic”? For example, cherries contain hydrocyanic acid, broccoli contains neochlorgenic acid, and lettuce, carrots, apples, celery, and eggplant all contain caffeic acid.  All of these foods contain what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls “potentially carcinogenic [cancer-causing] compounds.” In a nutshell, they are potentially toxic substances. We all understand that eating cherries won’t kill us; in fact, we know they are healthful. But if we took just the information on potential toxicity and isolated it from all of the other information we have about whole food and its overall value to our well-being, our gardens might be empty for fear of poisoning ourselves.

So how can something be good for you and toxic at the same time?

First of all, 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 bagful of cherry pits to cause cyanide poisoning. So the first lesson about potential toxicity is moderation. Consuming food or herbs in realistic quantities can go a long way to preventing any real problems.

Poke is no exception to this rule.  When eaten in moderation, poke actually has some very admirable qualities as a healthful pot herb.  According to the Wikimedia page on Pokeweed already mentioned, 100 grams of leafy shoots contain 31g protein, 4.8g fat; 44g carbohydrates, 631 mg calcium; 524 mg phosphorus and 20.2 mg of iron.  It is also high in vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6 and niacin.  Pokeweed is also a natural and gentle cathartic that actually increases the elimination of bodily wastes.

In addition to the edibility of its leaves, the roots and dried leaves of poke have long been used as a medicinal plant.  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 anticancer and antimutagenic properties that are used to treat certain types of cancer.  There are so many medicinal uses for Phytolacca americanus that I can not possibly discuss them all in this article.  For anyone interested in this subject, I recommend reading taking the time to find reputable and modern sources for information on medicinal uses.  In the end, only you can decide what is best for you and your family.

Pokeweed and Passionfruit copyright Jill HendersonIt’s obvious that I am a fan of poke.  I love indulging in its buttery flavor once or twice each spring before the plant bolts and is inedible.  I also appreciate its benefits to wildlife.  Butterflies and moths flock to its flowers, songbirds fill their bellies with the fat ripe berries, and the native passion fruit vine in my back yard loves to climb into it’s branches.  For me, poke is a beautiful and hardy herbaceous perennial that can be put to good use as a native ornamental that also happens to be a wonderful, if not fleeting, native vegetable.


A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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25 responses to “Pokeweed: Good Green or Toxic Weed?

  1. I cooked and ate some poke salad today for the first time in a life of eating wild foods. It was delicious! I spent some time looking for actual research on the human toxicity of cooked pokeweed and there does not seem to be any. Thanks for the lovely post.

    • You’re welcome and thank you, grandmafrog! I’m so happy that you were able to experience poke salat first hand and know how good it tastes! I will continue searching for quality research on the toxicity of poke as a pot herb and I will post what I find in a future article. All the best, Jill

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  3. I’m 64 years old and I’ve ate poke most of my life. I don’t like young poke because it doesn’t have much flavor. I like it when it’s 2 to 6 feet tall and the leaves are huge. I only boil it for about 15 minutes to wilt it down then I squeeze it to remove excess liquid and stir fry it in bacon grease and add eggs at the end. Good stuff.

    • Bob, you’ve obviously been enjoying mature poke for many years! I’ve read numerous papers that say you shouldn’t eat the mature leaves because they contain much more of the toxic compound, but apparently you’ve managed to remove the majority of it through parboiling. I hope you continue to enjoy your poke for many years to come!

  4. I’d rather have found an article in killing the pokeweed, once and for all!

    • Lynn, I have found that if you hack a mature poke plant to the ground a couple of times during the growing season, it doesn’t come back – mowing/weed-eating regularly would do the trick for sure.

  5. Thanks for the article. I never knew what this plant was and finally got around to searching for images and it is clearly pokeweed. We have it all over the property. So far we have sassafras, burdock, mullein, plantain, chicory, and oregano is said to be around as well. Still learning and discovering.

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  7. I have eaten it all my life and the ‘poison’ label is over emphasized. I treat it like any other green. I only boil it once, drain and wash it. I have even eaten the leaves raw a few times with no ill effects. It is my favorite green. I want to try making jam from the berries as you mentioned. I have heard that the stems can be pealed and fried like okra but I have not tried it; I intend to. I have always eaten it as a green, but I want to soon try some of the recipes I have found online. We picked the whole plant in the wild and stripped the leaves at home, but I am growing it in my yard now and I pick the leaves only and new ones soon grow to be harvested.

    • I personally agree with you, Jeff. The poison label is overemphasized. I’m sure you’ve gone through the comments section and seen others response to this post – many of them have eaten poke their entire lives with no ill effects – including the berries, which are the most “toxic”. I personally have a nice stash of poke in my freezer so that my husband and I can enjoy it well into winter. That being said, I do respect the science behind the toxicity reports and still advise everyone to pick poke when young, cook it well, avoid the berries and roots, and consume in moderation. But please do post any recipes you find to be good, and let us know how the fried stems turn out! Thanks!

  8. Jill, what about eating the whole mature plant stalks and all? I have heard that if you boil it, throw away that water and boil it again, then it is ok to eat. What do you think?

    • Hi Rita, thanks for the question. As mentioned in the article, the only safe way to consume poke is to boil it in at least two changes of water. Doing so reduces the amount of toxic substances in the aerial parts. That being said, I strongly discourage you not to eat any part of the mature plant. The reason for this is that as the plant matures, the amount of toxic alkaloids increase substantially. If you have positively identified a patch of pokeweed, visit it in the early spring when the first leaves are emerging. This is the best, and safest, time to harvest poke for eating. Enjoy!

  9. Keith Miller

    I live in Appalachian Ohio (east central) and have been eating poke for decades. Every spring I pick a bag or two and enjoy it. I also pick ramps, dandelion greens, morel mushrooms and consider these spring tonic for the run down feeling in Spring. Thanks for this article

    • Hi Keith. That’s awesome! We like to do the same thing. In fact, we decided to encourage a little patch near the house on the edge of the woods so the pickin’ is easy! I harvested 8 lbs of poke leaves in less than 20 minutes and now we’ve got several bags of cooked and frozen poke for winter eating!

  10. Via an email from Marcia S. :
    I enjoyed your article; I had always heard that pokeweed was “poison,” and had assumed that the edible version was a different plant than ours here (Michigan). Your article cleared things up. Now I understand!
    I wanted to share some info you may find of interest in terms of livestock. As with humans and herbs, it’s all “dose-related.” Your article stated that pokeweed “should be eliminated from fields and field edges.” I have kept horses for nearly 40 years, and goats for more than 6 years, and I can tell you that these animals can safely y co-exist with pokeweed in their fields. (I have no experience with cattle or sheep. ) As you mentioned, chickens just ignore it. The horses usually ignore it, but may show signs of mild toxicity (drooling, or “the slobbers”) if they decide to nibble on it, perhaps out of boredom. (Once in 40 years we had horses doing this, and our vet at the time attributed it to pokeweed. )He suggested that we get rid of it around the dry lot (where horses get bored). In pastures, where they have better things to do and chew on, they leave it alone.
    The goats are an interesting case. (Note that ours are Spanish and Spanish-cross “brush” goats, not dairy goats; this makes a difference. ) We use our goat “mowing crew” to manage land, including fence rows. They happily devour thorny brambles, poison ivy, grapevine, etc. They sometimes eat pokeweed, but only the smaller, more tender leaves. I suspect those are the ones that contain the lowest amounts of toxins and are less bitter. It would probably not be a good idea to put a hungry, “naïve” goat out on a stand of pokeweed; they might poison themselves. However, goats who are accustomed to hustling their own grub do not gorge on one plant; they “balance” their diet, and thus can safely be grazed around a variety of plants.
    Finally, I wanted to point out a use for those gorgeous berries. They can be collected, boiled down, and used to make a wonderful pink/red/burgundy dye. Though I am told that it’s difficult to make a colorfast dye with them, I have used pokeberry to dye wool I then use to make needle-felted creations, which are, of course, not washed anyway.
    Thanks for writing about pokeweed!

  11. i have a ten foot behemoth guarding the compost bin in my backyard. thinking of getting a logger to come in and take it out. Wish it were hemp.

    • Hi Greg. I’ve seen them get that tall from time to time growing from very old root stock. I’ll bet your rich compost doesn’t hurt, either! I think poke is a beautiful plant and if you’ve got ducks, they Love Love the berries!

  12. I think I’ll leave pokeweed to the birds and butterflies. Great post though. Full of wonderful information.

    • Thank you, Rita. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, even if you’re not into it as a wild edible. Lots of critters do enjoy the young shoots and ripe berries and they are quite pretty to look at, too.

  13. When my Aunt would come down from Michigan – to visit us in St. Louis Missouri, Mom and her and I would go up to a set of rail road tracks where it grew wild. Of course I was made to sit in the car until they were done picking it . I love this, my mom would make it, boil it twice in different pots. On the last med heat, add (bacon grease) (Onions) and white distilled vinegar with pepper to taste. Since I do not do bacon or any other type of grease, I will use a clove of garlic, onions m parsley & basil in the pot, once removed, add olive oil and a vinaigrette, I prefer a smooth red one.

    • Great story, Linda. I’ve talked to many people who add vinegar to their poke for the zingy taste, but I’ve never even thought of using basil in poke! Thanks for the suggestion!

  14. My in-laws from eastern Kentucky have eaten fried poke all their lives and when I first tried it I was hooked, However, they never boiled the leaves, they harvested the young and some older leaves, washed them and dredged them in flour and meal. Then fried in bacon grease until crispy, placed on towels to drain excess bacon grease and then consumed. I am now 66 and no one ever has had a reaction to poke.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rhonda. You’re the first person to describe preparing poke this way – and it sounds really delicious! I know people who’ve eaten poke their whole lives with no detrimental effects. And while poke berries are “mildly” toxic, I also know (and knew) a few older folks who swore by eating one ripe pokeberry every year to ward off rheumatism. As long as the poke is cooked, it seems to have little negative effects.

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