As a child, I was warned not to eat raw pokeweed berries – and I never did —but the long clusters of blackish-purple fruits fascinated me. They looked as poisonous as they apparently were.
Pokeweed, also called poke or pokeberry (Phytolacca americana), is a native herbaceous plant found throughout most of the U.S., in fields and weedy areas and along forest edges and roadsides. It’s striking in appearance — 5-10 feet high or taller, with bright green leaves and robust purple stems.
In the summer, pokeweed produces small white, greenish, or pinkish flowers. These are followed in the fall by an abundance of those evil-looking berries, which — as I can readily attest — vividly stain hands, clothing, sidewalks, and anything else they contact.
Early American settlers, in fact, make a dye from pokeweed juice. And the berries are an important food for various birds, Mourning Doves especially, which promote dispersal of the seeds.
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For humans, all parts of the pokeweed plant, particularly the roots, are toxic. Nevertheless, in the Appalachians and parts of the South, people traditionally cooked up young leaves and shoots, often with green onions, bacon, salt pork, and/or eggs. The boiled greens – variously called poke sallet or polk salad – were said to be safe when pre-soaked and thoroughly cooked in several changes of water.
Recipes for poke sallet persist to this day, and some people still enjoy it. USDA nutritional data attest to its nutritional value if safely prepared.
I confess to never having tried poke sallet, feeling intimidated by the high toxicity of the plant – and pokeweed keeps getting more poisonous as it matures. Scientists have identified various specific toxins in the plant, and symptoms of pokeweed poisoning include (depending on dosage) gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, respiratory distress, convulsions, even death.
But I still love the look of pokeweed – its extravagant growth, its gaudy purple stems, and ominous-looking fruits. The birds love it, too.
It’s an arresting feature in the Lowcountry landscape and in my garden, but I admire it from a distance.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.