by 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.
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.
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.
It 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…
© 2014 Jill Henderson
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!
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.