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.
As 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.
It’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.