IntoTheWoods_PhytolaccaStory Lindsay Wilson

With spring well on its way, we have to talk about the semitropical plant, pokeweed or pokeberry (Phytolacca Americana). You can find this native plant growing from the Deep South all the way up to the Midwest. It even has relatives in South America, East Asia and New Zealand. It is found easily along roadsides, forest edges, disturbed areas and fields.

To some farmers it’s a pernicious weed. To native plant enthusiasts, it’s a spectacular addition to native plant landscaping. Its white blooms adorn the plant from early summer to fall while the showy pink stalk adds color and texture to any yard or garden. The dark purple, pea-size berries hang from clusters in the fall. The plant dies back every year and can grow as high as 10 feet. And, if you want to attract birds to your yard, the gray catbird, mockingbird, cardinal, brown thrasher and cedar waxwing all frequent this plant for its fall berries.

To a craftsperson who uses natural pigments to dye fabric and yarn, poke is well known. Depending on the mordant (fixative), you can render different shades of fuchsias, salmon-brown colors, periwinkle purples and even red. The word “poke” actually alludes to its traditional use as a dye. It comes from the Virginia Algonquian (Indian) word “pakon” or “pucone.” Pakon refers to a plant used for dye or staining, and pokeweed’s berries have been used as a dye for centuries.

Poke is of interest to historians, too. There are well-founded rumors that Thomas Jefferson used pokeberry ink to write the original U.S. Constitution (on hemp paper). During the Civil War, many of the letters written by soldiers to their families back home were written in pokeberry ink as well.

You may have heard that this plant is dangerous and toxic. So, why would I be writing about it as medicine? Well, it is and it isn’t toxic. Although this plant is one I would use with a high level of caution, it still has a lot to share with us. After all, the toxicity of a plant has a lot to do with dosage.

As Birney Imes wrote about in the previous story, poke sallet is an old dish here in the Deep South. When times were lean and the early settlers were living off the land, poke sallet was survival food. Considering they were the first greens to appear after wintertime, it was an early spring tradition to eat poke sallet here and in Appalachia. 

They would harvest the young, spring leaves (typically leaves under six inches long) of the poke plant and then boil them three times, draining the water and refilling it with fresh water each time. This leeching process ridded the plant of its toxicity. The boiled leaves were then eaten to move the lymphatic system and clean out the blood.

Let’s go back and think about life at that time. Settlers lived close to the land and had some sensibilities when it came to seasonal living. Their survival depended on their awareness of these things and the practicality with which they approached it.

Even though I am sharing this information with you, I urge you to only use poke as a medicine if guided or supervised by a trained herbalist or clinical herbalist.

There are issues of poisoning with this plant — namely children seeing those beautiful dark purple berries and, thinking that they are blueberries, eating a whole mess of them only to have their stomachs pumped later. As I said, use caution. 

Let’s start with the berries. As I mentioned earlier, a variety of birds eat the berries with no issue of toxicity. That’s because the seeds’ outer coverings are rather hard and the birds do not digest them at all. This allows the seeds to pass through their systems and disperse freely as droppings.

Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass would eat a few berries every day for six days in the fall to clean the blood and move the lymph. I have actually done this myself, except eating one berry a day for three days. The important thing is to not chew the seeds and simply mash the berry against the roof of your mouth to release the juice and swallow the berry whole. To learn more about the life of Tommie Bass, I urge you to go to folkstreams.net and watch “Tommie Bass: A Life in the Ridge and Valley Country.” 

Then there is the root, the most potent part of the plant … and the most toxic. Many herbalists choose not to use this herb while others feel very confident and comfortable. Either way, it is a low-dose herb, meaning the dose (in tincture form) is 1-5 drops, depending on the person. The root can also be used topically as infused oil or a salve (the root is infused in oil and then thickened with beeswax).

I personally love digging up poke’s root and cutting it open. It has a strangely sweet smell that is fragrant and earthy. There are rings in the root like rings on a tree, showing each year of growth. And the color of the root flesh is a really pale yellow-cream.

Traditionally, the root has been used to move the lymph fluid through the lymph vessels, to encourage lymphatic function, to clean the blood, for its anti-viral properties, to eliminate swollen lymph nodes, and as a stimulant to the immune system. Topically, it can also be used for mastitis, for common warts and for swollen glands around the thyroid associated with hypothyroidism. I also find it to be a great topical salve to use on the throat for strep throat. When combined with anti-microbial herbs such as propolis and immune-stimulating herbs such as Southern prickly ash, I find it to be the right defense for most viruses and bacteria that can attack the system.

Truly, poke is a powerful herb that deserves attention as well as caution. When used appropriately this herb can give a person needed support and relief from a health imbalance. Like many of our plants, the right knowledge will lead to proper and effective use. For now, let’s just enjoy the unusual beauty of poke and deepen our interest on its purpose in our life and in our environment.