If you like to eat wild foods, this one is ready in the spring. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is not entirely useless in the fall; it’s just not edible. The poisonous berries make a beautiful magenta colored ink that is somewhat colorfast, but not overly lightfast. It’s a fun one for crafters to play with when summer winds down.
Poke is a perennial plant found in all states except for a few western ones. It can grow up to ten feet tall. Stems can be more than two inches in diameter. Its large carrot-like taproot lives through the winter. Pokeweed produces no tubers or rhizomes, so further dissemination is entirely by seeds.
Flowers and fruits are borne in long tapered clusters. The fruits are purple to nearly black on the outside when ripe. Each berry contains ten shiny black seeds about and eighth inch across neatly arranged in a ring. These seeds are very poisonous.
Leaves are arranged alternately and are large and pointed with a smooth edge. Stems are reddish to purple and sometimes green.
In spring the emerging shoots make excellent cooked greens and remind many of asparagus. Make sure to collect only young shoots and break them off above the ground. Never pull them. The roots are poisonous too.
I think it improves tender shoots to change the water once they reach a full boil. If they’re taller than six inches or so a second change won’t hurt. Otherwise they can be a little bitter, much like collards or dandelion greens can be.
Many southern grocery stores once carried canned poke greens. These were fully processed and entirely safe. In 2000, commercial poke greens became a thing of the past when the Allen Canning Company quit producing them.
Several toxins have been identified in species of Phytolacca, usually concentrated in the roots, berries and seeds. These poisons include an alkaloid (phytolaccine), a resin (phytolaccatoxin), and a saponin (phytolaccigenin).
Pokeweed also produces a very toxic plant protein called a lectin. Lectins can cause red blood cells to clump together and may stimulate abnormal cell division in certain white blood cells. Lectins are the primary toxin in the world’s deadliest seeds, including the castor bean (Ricinus communis) and prayer bead (Abrus precatorius). Consume only leaves and young stems and never eat them raw.
If all this scares you a little you might want to know that considerable research is ongoing with pokeweed. Scientists have identified poke extracts as promising anti-cancer drugs.
Gardeners might note that Pokeweed potions have also been used to control snails. I’ve experimented with limited success. Beer traps using modified 2-liter bottles have been more effective for me.
As with any wild plant, be careful to consume only small amounts until you are sure it agrees with you. Also consider the collection location as pesticides might have been used recently and residues could be present.
If you are handling the fruits to make dyes for crafts, always make sure to wash your hands thoroughly just in case you might have a few seeds under your nails.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.