Poke~A Powerful Natural Medicine, But Not For The Novice
Phytolacca americana-aka Poke is an amazing example of nature. It's medicinal, poisonous, edible in small doses or with careful preparation and widely available in the wild. Poke even grows intermittently in my yard, my neighbors yards and throughout the areas all around me. Because of this, it's impossible to regulate or it certainly would be if they tried.
I was first introduced to Poke through a Poke Salat recipe while helping build a Wild Homestead in Cabool, Missouri. A very eccentric single mother of three living in a 10×10 steel shack crossed my path on Facebook and I traveled to help out on her homestead for 2 weeks.
From the description above, many would think she needed charity to get on her feet, but this was hardly the case. She had everything necessary to get by and the spunk to do it, which is what caught my attention and inspired me to help her out in the summer of 2016.
Since 2015 I've traveled each summer for up to a month helping beginner homesteaders build their dreams. Because I scavenge for a living and find just about any kind of building materials you could need for free, I not only donate my time and skills, but whatever materials I can find that fit their projects.
In return, because travel isn't cheap I simply ask to be fed(if they can,but I bring food too) and they are always happy to let me camp on their land. This particular trip I put together a wind generator someone donated to her, built a natural timber framed outdoor bath house, with a metal roof from panels I donated and created a plumbing system that supplied the water to it from a pond nearby.
She had solar and wind power, so I connected it all together as well. I was also able to supply the pvc pipe and electrical wires for the system along with a huge picture window I added onto her humble abode.
In return she fed me well, introduced me to many new wild edibles and ways to prepare them I was unaware of. Besides making new friends, I consider gaining new knowledge through voluntary cooperation the income I receive for my services. No matter how much I give materially, I'm always receiving more in return through the interaction.
One of these new wild edibles was Poke. In the American Southwest, Poke Salat is a traditional dish that goes back centuries. She explained to me what parts of the plant to pick, a little about its uses and how to prepare it properly for consumption. I'll be doing the same for you later in the article.
I've since learned so much about it and once it was pointed out to me, I began to see it everywhere. It's funny how that works, until you realize something is beneficial you tend to just walk on by without giving them a thought. Once you get into foraging though, this will never be the case.
Usually, I walk the dogs along the lake shore by my house, but like to mix it up a bit. Today we walked the perimeter of Levi Carter Park, which is mostly wooded. The timing was perfect, because Pokeweed was just beginning to sprout and they were at the perfect age to harvest the new shoots. More on that below.
Let me tell you a bit about this wondrous entity. I'll start with its description.
Poke is a meaty plant that is quite fragile. This means it doesn't get tough and woody with age. As a brand new growth it's fully green, but it doesn't take long before the stalk and stems start to turn red. They become a bright/dark red or purple'ish, like the juice of the berries when they ripen, which is a warning of its poisonous nature.
Poke can grow up to 12' tall, but I mostly see them average around 3' to 5'. In early summer they begin to flower, showing their fruit in mid to late summer. It's a perrenial, dying back each year, but the root remains, so new growth will reappear each year, but grows easily from its seed as well.
The stalk is round, thick, straight and red. It's darker at the base and is mostly hollow. They can easily reach a diameter of an inch or more.
The leaves mostly connect directly to the stalk and form an alternating patern up the stem when young. As the stem grows, more leaves sprout in an alternating pattern on the stems, just like on the stalk.The leaf stems are also red and as the plant grows it begins to become quite thick and bushy.
The leaf itself is broad at the top and tapers toward the stem, like a feather and are smooth on the top and bottom, with a slight waviness along the edges. While mostly green, the veins on the underside can show light hints of red as well, growing up to 12" long and 5" wide at the tip.
The flowers are white with a green center and are quite tiny at around a 1/4". The flowers are aranged symetrically in alternating rows of 10 or more and grow on a separate branch that forms directly opposite a leaf from the stem. The flower pattern forms a thick spike at the end of the branch around 4" long, 2" in diameter at the base and tapers to the tip.
The berries form directly where each flower was. They start out green and hardy, maturing into a dark purple almost black with a bright red or crimson interior. When mature, the berries are quite delicate and will stain your hands.
The berries themselves are the least toxic part of the plant, but be careful of the seed. They look so similar to elderberries when ripe, that those unfamiliar with either plant tend to mix them up.
The seed and the root are the most toxic parts of the plant, but the mature leaves and stems give them a run for their money as well. The seed is hardy, tiny and survives the digestive tract, so can be eaten with the berry, but do not chew it.
The root is a mostly singular taproot, growing up to 1' long and 4" in diameter. It's covered in a brownish leathery bark with a white interior and is quite meaty. It's pretty easy to harvest by hand when young, but requires a shovel to dig up after it matures.
I find poke growing most anywhere where it's protected and has partial shade to full sun exposure. It prefers areas where the ground has been disturbed, so a freshly dug garden, along a fenceline or new construction projects tend to expose the seeds if present, initiating their growth. Whether near an open field, a wooded area or along the banks of a lake, they tend to grow along a tree line.
While native to the Eastern United States, they have become naturalized around the world everywhere, except at higher elevations. I found the young one's in the images along the edge of a wooded area that had recently been cleared out by an industrial stump grinder.
Edibility and Medicinal Uses
Because the whole plant is considered toxic, it's not officially considered edible. That being said, it has been eaten by humans for centuries and probably much longer than that. While most are allergic to its ricin-like toxin, some have no problems at all eating the young leaves raw.
I forgot to put my harvest in the fridge lastnight and touching the wilted leaves then my lips this morning caused a minor long-lasting tingle. So some will have a negative reaction simply from touching the plant.
All parts of Poke contain toxins that will cause serious distress if eaten or absorbed through an open wound. Do not eat Poke if you are unfamiliar with the proper preparation methods and you may not want to touch it with bare skin.
Reactions associated with Pokeweed poisoning include; severe vomiting, severe diarrhea, severe stomach pain and cramping, labored breath, hallucinations and even death has been reported.
With that out of the way, let's get started. Pokeweed has had many studies looking at individual components of its make up. There has been very little testing with crude extracts, where the toxin is still present though.
Native Americans used Poke to purge or detox the body, because of its laxative, purgative and narcotic effects. While it's not in any of the literature I've read, I'm speculating it could have been used to purge out other toxins, rid the body of negative spirits and even for communicating with the spirit world.
In Traditional Folk Medicine it has been used to treat syphilis, * *cancer-skin and internal, *topically to treat scabies, ringworm and minor inflammation resulting from bruising or sprains, arthritis and rheumatism, Diabetic Nephropathy and quite a few more ailments.
Currently there is evidence that Poke has anti-tumor properties and is being studied as a possible medicine to prevent HIV-1 from replicating in the cells.[4,8]
With proper preparation all parts can be ingested, but only the young leaves of plants that are at a 6"-10" height of growth are typically consumed as food. While the berries have been used to make wine, the juices to color food and as a general dye, it's not used commercially these days.
Poke Salat was once sold commercially as a canned product of only the boiled leaves, but has long since been discontinued as a commercial product. Now a traditional Southern recipe has taken on the name, which many mispronounce, calling it Poke Salad.
The leaves I harvested were used to prepare it in the Southern tradition and I like to freeze the berries, which are swallowed whole like a pill. The berries are tolerable for most, as long as you don't bite into the seed. It's the seed that'll cause a severe reaction. Since it passes through the digestive tract undigested and is only a problem if you damage the husk.
For Poke Salat, you only harvest the uppermost new growth leaves when the plant is under 12" in height.
Preparing Poke Salat
The base ingredients for Poke Salat are simply the young new growth leaves, a cooking oil of your choice, bacon, onions and garlic. Of course you can add any spices or components you like, but the bacon, fresh onions and garlic are tasty enough. I cooked mine up into an omelet for breakfast.
The key to purging Poke of its toxin is to boil it three times. Some boil it only twice;once for 15 mins. and a second for 1 min. under a rolling boil. Others boil it three times; the first two times for 5 mins. each and a third for another minute.
The boil time starts after the water reaches a rolling boil, not from the time you put it on the burner. Between each boil you need to fully strain away the old water, rinse the leaves and use fresh water for the next boil. So, you are not neutralizing the toxin with heat, you are removing and diluting it through the boiling water.
While you are boiling the Poke, get a fry pan and start cooking your bacon stirring occasionally. In between stirs I'm either straining the Poke and starting another boil or cutting up the onions and garlic for the next step.
The bacon should be done before your Poke, so set it aside on a cold burner. You can add the oil, onions and garlic now or after it cools. It just depends on your preference.
Once the poke is finished, I press the water out of it and cut it up with scissors in the pan. Then I add it to the other ingredients in the fry pan. Fry until it's to your liking and serve or add beaten eggs(with a bit of milk to make them more fluffy) and turn it into an omelet. You can use it to top a bed of rice as well.
The amount of fresh ingredients doesn't matter, because everyone has different tastes. I love onions, so my dish was heavy on the onions. Top with your choice of toppings and dig in. I topped mine with tomato and sour cream with chives.
I am not a professional and you should never use a single source for identifying plants, trees or mushrooms for consumption. Nature provides many powerful medicines AND poisons, so always be sure of what you have before consuming anything you find in the wild, especially in the raw form.
Every new experience adds to the respect, wonder and awe I feel when bonding with this living entity we call 🌎.
Please make sure to take the time to get outside and bond with your environment. Your health will thank you at every level of your being and please share your experiences with the world. Personal communal knowledge is beneficial to us all, because this interaction is essential to our evolution.
Thank you and I hope your day unfolds on your terms.
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