Palatable and Poisonous? It’s Pokeweed!


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.

young pokeweed plant

Young pokeweed plant – Harvesting size

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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9 Responses to Palatable and Poisonous? It’s Pokeweed!

  1. awhitenhs12 says:

    Its crazy how the pokeweed can be edible and posionous at the same time. I found it interesting that its posionous in the fall, but edible in the spring. This is a very interesting plant.

  2. zachvanett says:

    It is very cool thath it can be edible but also be posionous to

  3. zachvanett says:

    It is really cool thath they are posinous in the fall but you can eat it in the spring

  4. I have never heard of a plant like this. The plant can be poisonous and edible, plants are strange.

  5. iv seen that before. didn’t know they got that big. very odd how most of it is poisonous but part is edible

  6. I never thought a plant could be poisonous in one season and not in another. This is a very interesting plant !

  7. amandawensel says:

    thats strange that one season its poisonous and the other not, but its just its unique feature

  8. its very interesting that its poisonous on one season and not in another, thats what makes this plant more unique!

  9. jordan2197 says:

    pokeweed can be edible but it is also poisonous, in the fall pokeweed is poisonous but in the spring it is edible

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