Issue No. 132 - October 3, 2004
by Sue Sweeney
|The “rule of thumb” for edibility of native berries is:
white: never; red: sometimes: blue and purple: usually, and
black: almost always. However, pokeberry disproves the rule
– its ripe berries are purple-black but it’s extremely
dangerous to mammals. Pokeberry (Phytolacca Americana)
is a handsome, native perennial of Northeast North America
that has spread south and west, perhaps as far as Mexico
(said to be hardy Zones 2-11).
|picture: green pokeberry fruit, Bedford
Street, Stamford, CT August 2004
At home in North America, pokeberry stands up to the
foreign competition, such as mugwort,
Mugwort without crowding out other native
plants. In other countries and off the USA mainland
(e.g. Hawaii), pokeberry sometimes shows up on the
invasive plant lists. Hard to think of our natives
as being pollution in other countries.
Pokeberry gets its hardiness from a thick
taproot, rumored to reach "thigh-size" in
the South. The taproot sends up
asparagus-like shoots in early spring. The
mature plant is hip to shoulder high, with
arching branches. The thick stalks and
branches start out green but often turn
rhubarb red. The smooth, medium green leaves
are alternate, with smooth edges and
pronounced ribs. Small white or greenish
flowers come in long, hanging clusters. The
flowers become green berries that turn red,
then dark purple. (For the botanists among
you, the flowers lack petals – using whitish
sepals instead.) Pokeberry blooms from the
hot days of late summer through the cool
autumn. The flowers are quickly followed by
fruit so it’s common to see the plant
festooned with both flowers and fruit in all
stages of maturity.
Pokeberry grows in rich, moist soil in
part sun. It often found in distributed
areas. Since the berries are bird favorites,
look for pokeberry near roosting sites such
as open woods, fence lines, and your garden.
The birds it attracts include many
songbirds, robins, cardinals, catbirds,
woodpeckers, waxwings, bluebirds, and
|picture: Pokeberry fruit in early
October, First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT Oct, 2004
It's said that "poke" comes from a
Pre-Columbian American word meaning "plant
used for red or yellow dye". The berry juice
was used for ink, and it continues to be
used for dye, even though it's not
particularly colorfast (except on kids'
dress-up clothes). However, as a child in
upstate New York, I was told that the name
came from berry's shape. If you closely look
at the un-ripe berries, you'll see that each
one has an indentation in the middle, like
someone poked it. As the berries mature,
they plump up and the indentation
American pokeberry is
seriously poisonous to humans. Sources
agree that most parts of the plant, most of
time, induce extreme gastrointestinal
distress in mammals. Accordingly, Native
Americans used it as a laxative and emetic.
Sources agree that the root shouldn't be
The Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue
University, web site warns that no part of
the plant should be touched, let alone
eaten, by humans or livestock. It's pointed
out that substances in pokeberry called "mitogens"
induce cell divisions and thus, possibly
cell mutations, leading to cancer and birth
defects, but the site also notes that
confirming research hasn't been done.
In addition, limiting all contact with
the plant has been advised by several
sources. The mitogens are said to be
absorbable through the skin; and a
poison-ivy rash resulting from skin contact
with pokeberry has been reported.
However, despite cautionary advice from
the “experts”, young shoots are eaten, after
being THOROUGHLY cooked AT LEAST TWICE in
separate waters. The berries were used for
wine and, when THOROUGHLY cooked, pie.
Berry-eating can be fatal to children, so be
careful with the plant around the young
picture: Close up of a
mature pokeberry leaf, Hoyt Street Alley,
|Meanwhile, in the rural Southern USA, "poke salat", as
in the Oldies song "Poke Salat Ann", is still a spring
delight (rite?). It's believed that an annual dose has
valuable vitamins and prevents arthritis. I, though, wonder
how many healthful ingredients survive double or triple
Pokeberry has its own plant family, including an Asian
cousin, the Indian or Himalayan pokeberry, Phytolacca
acinosa, which is used as a dye and which is widely used in
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM practitioners
beware: the American cousin, which may have different
properties, looks strikingly like the Asian herb.
Phytolacca Americana, Stamford CT Fall
2003 and 2004
|There are reports that the American pokeberry is being
studied for modern Western medical use, including by AIDS
researchers who are exploring whether the mitogens can cause
white blood cells to multiple.
|picture: Late in season, stems are
rhubarb-red and leaves are starting to have yellow blotches.
Bedford-Morgan parking lot, Stamford CT, Oct. 2004.
|Picture: Pokeberry being encircled by
porcelainberry, Hoyt Street Alley, Summer 2004