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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Pokeberry

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 morning doves.

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 disappears.

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 eaten.

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 ones.

picture: Close up of a mature pokeberry leaf, Hoyt Street Alley, Oct. 2004.
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 cooking.

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.


pictures: 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
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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