Pokeweed In The Pot – Or Not?

Cooking pokeweed copyright Jill Hendersonby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

It’s that time of year again and the pokeweed is already knee-high – just right for the picking.    Although poke has been eaten as a vegetable for hundreds – if not thousands – of years, authorities now say that pokeweed should never be consumed because of its potentially toxic compounds.  Yet, over the years I have received multitudes of emails from older folks who say they’ve eaten it their whole lives with no ill effect.   What do you thing?  Should pokeweed go in the pot, or not?

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

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.  This is usually about the time when the novice forager notices pokeweed, but it’s definitely not the time to harvest it.

Obviously, the toxicity 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.  You can find out more about the chemical make-up of pokeweed on the Wikipedia page Phytolacca americana by scrolling down to the heading “Known Constituents”.

While all parts of poke, including berries, stems, leaves and roots are considered poisonous, the roots are by far the most toxic and should never be consumed for any reason.  At one time, the berries of poke were thought to be the most toxic, but are now are considered to be the least, which goes to show that theories on toxicity are always changing.  Personally, I have no use for bland-flavored berries of any kind, so I have never used pokeberries.

That being said, I do enjoy poke as a vegetable.  The very young leaves and stems should be cooked in at least two changes of water to remove and reduce the amount of the milky latex-like substance that contains the toxic compounds.  After cooking this way, the very young stems and leaves become deliciously tender and creamy and with the liberal application of butter and salt, poke is a delicacy that can’t be compared to any other vegetable.

Copyright 2009  H. Zell (via Wikimedia Commons)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.

Also, when foraging 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.   Some people say they eat poke any time of year, but given that mature plants produce more potent latex as bloom-time arrives, I strongly suggest you avoid harvesting leaves from plants that are more than two feet tall.  The best time to hunt for this nutritious and delicious wild edible in the Ozarks is from late March to late May.

Pokeweed: Good Green or Toxic Weed?

When eaten in moderation, poke actually has some very admirable qualities as a healthful pot herb.  According to the Wikipedia page already mentioned, 100 grams of leafy shoots contain 31 g protein, 4.8 g fat; 44 g 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 is oleanolic acid, which is well-known for its anticancer and antimutagenic properties, which 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 here.  For those who are interested, I recommend taking the time to find reputable and modern sources for information on the medicinal uses of poke.

2008 May (8) pokeIt was recently pointed out to me that poke contains oxalic acid, which is a known trigger for certain types of gout.  But poke is not alone in the arena of edibles containing oxalic acid.  There are an astounding number of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes (soy), and nuts that contain high levels of oxalic acid, as well as a few sources most people don’t think of, such as chocolate and black tea.  So, if you suffer from gout, or experience gout-like symptoms, you should not eat pokeweed.  Check out this page from The World’s Healthiest Foods for good info on foods containing oxalic acids and how oxalates work in the body.

I receive loads of emails each year from older folks who say they, and generations before them, have eaten poke their whole lives without any problems at all, asking me what the big deal is about eating pokeweed, anyway?  My answer is:  I agree.  I’ve eaten it for some years now – not a lot, mind you, maybe four to six servings a year – and have notices no ill effects of any kind.

To put the poke in the pot or not is completely up to you.  If you’re worried about eating it, by all means, pick a more conventional vegetable that you feel good about.   And if you enjoy poke and feel it is safe for you to eat, by all means…

Happy foraging!

© 2014 Jill Henderson

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The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!

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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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20 responses to “Pokeweed In The Pot – Or Not?

  1. Great overview of not only poke but of all the research info. I can click on. Love learning from your articles because they are so thorough. Thanks, Jill….another winner. xo

    • Thank you, Jerre! I try to gather the best information I can find so folks can make informed decisions, but there’s always more to learn! Check out the article Brum just posted a link to. I was quite surprised by all the “pro’s” of pokeweed.

  2. My grandparents and parents ate pokeweed in moderation. However, you are correct, new studies say it is toxic. e.g. “All parts of the pokeweed are poisonous, particularly the roots. The leaves and stems are next in toxicity, and the berries have the smallest amount of poison. However, children have been poisoned by eating raw pokeweed berries, and some have died. The practice of brewing pokeweed plant parts with hot water to make tea has caused poisoning. Thoroughly cooking the plant reduces its toxicity. The effects of eating the uncooked or improperly prepared plant can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, blurred vision, confusion, dermatitis, dizziness, and weakness. Convulsions, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, heart block (a blockage of the electrical impulses that stimulate the heart to contract), and death may occur. Animals can also die of toxic effects from eating pokeweed, although it does not happen often.”
    Taken from: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/pokeweed

    • Hi Brum. Thanks for sharing that great article on the pro’s and cons of pokeweed. Anyone who is interested in this plant should definitely read it – I know I found some new and valuable information. The thing I noticed about the article was the preponderance of pro’s over cons, which I didn’t expect. In the end, if you stick to young shoots and leaves and cook them properly and you have no outstanding health problems, there should be little cause for concern.

  3. I say eat it. I’ve eaten it all my life and years gone by, there have been doctors who have recomened it to my family for health as it contains vitamins and minerals.

    • Hi Jonathan, that’s great that your doctor told you to eat poke! And he’s right, it’s packed full of vitamins and minerals, not to mention a great source of natural fiber.

      • Thanks for your comment….Potatoes and rubarb also have a small ammount of toxicity,but unless one eats enough to kill them from over eating,it cannot harm them (poke included) in my opinion.

  4. Great article, Jill. Two more tip for poke lovers. I peel the reddish skin off the stalks from the bottom up before blanching, which decreases the toxicity of the young leaf stalks. Also, by snapping the young plant off at the root at the time of harvest, the root sends up more shoots that can be harvested at that tender delicious stage. Old timers in the southern Appalachians considered a mess of poke greens to prevent rheumatic fever. Peace!

    • Thanks for the great tips, Peace Pioneer! I’ve never tried snapping off the main stem to the ground, but I definitely see how that would work to promote more growth! In our mature patch, we often find lots of “baby” plants growing around the mother, too.

  5. Poke’s dang good food when cooked and drained properly. Wouldn’t give it up for anything.

  6. Thanks for the enjoyable and informative articles, Jill. Regardless of what the new reports state of its toxicity, I believe it is safe to eat in moderation, as are all things God has given us for food. My ancestors ate it and survived to old age, and I have Poke on my list of wild survival foods. I just came across this web site. The festival in more recent times has oriented toward music, but the original name says it all… http://www.pokesalletfestival.com/

  7. I nearly died from eating diced raw pokeweed leaves in 2 turkey rollups a few years ago. I grew up a Missouri farm girl and was taught DO NOT EAT POKEWEED (along with Jimson & a few more) which I had no problem with until I became more “gor-may” and a good friend my mother’s age convinced me otherwise…..she failed to say “cook it first.” I will merely say that my body began to lose liquid uncontrollably from every orifice & pore…..I had to be given 3 bags of IV fluids at the ER where I was accused of having a drug overdose. I gained the nickname Poke Salad Annie for several years. I can laugh now but wouldn’t touch the stuff with a 10 foot pole!!

    • So sorry to hear about your horrible experience, Connie, and glad you’re ok. You experienced the strong (and sometimes violent) emetic/cathartic traits of the toxic compounds in pokeweed. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It should serve others as a potent reminder not to eat raw poke in any form and only the young leaves and young upper stems ONLY after cooking in two changes of boiling water. Some will say otherwise, but safe is the name of the game when it comes to wild edibles (just as it is with all wild foods like mushrooms or wild medicinal plants).

    • I am 72 years young and have eaten it all my life and have suffered no ill effects from it, the only thing I CAN RECOMEND is don’t eat it for you are most likely allerject to it. In my area I know of no one it has harmed. And also I have eaten it raw.

      • Hi Albert. I’ve had several folks say they’ve eaten it raw without incidence and then there’s Connie, the lady who posted here about how she did and wound up in the hospital due to the emetic nature of the sap! But I’ve never heard of anyone being allergic to pokeweed. Perhaps I need to ask around and find out more about that. Of course, I don’t ever suggest people eat raw poke for that reason and besides, it’s so darn good when it’s cooked – I can’t imagine raw poke tastes any better than that! Yum!

      • Thanks for the comment….Off the very top of the plant, it is very tender and in my opinion it has more taste than the cooked poke for the strength is not cooked away, also it adds taste to a salad like spinach. Anyway enjoy it the way you like,,, I’ll eat it raw and cooked. bon appetite..

      • Thanks, Jon! I’ve got several bags in the freezer for winter enjoyment.

  8. Pingback: Happy New Year & Thank You…for Everything! | Show Me Oz

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