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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Pokeberry

Issue No. 70 - July 27, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Pokeberry blooms in the hot days of late summer.  This how the plant looks in my area (zone 6) in late July and early August:

Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) is a handsome, native perennial of Northeast North America that has spread south and west, perhaps as far as Mexico.  Pokeberry has a thick taproot, rumored to reach "thigh-size" in the South, which sends up asparagus-like shoots in early spring.   The mature plant is hip- to shoulder-high, with arching branches.  The stalks start out green but often turn rhubarb red.  The medium-green leaves are alternate, with smooth edges and pronounced ribs.  Small white or greenish flowers come in long clusters, and become green berries that turn red, then dark purple.

Pokeberry grows in rich, moist soil in part sun in distributed soil.  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, woodpeckers, waxwings, cardinals, bluebirds, and morning doves.  Some mammals, including black bears, are also said to go for the berries. 

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 berries, you'll see that each one has an indentation in the middle, like someone poked it. 
American Pokeberry is seriously poisonous.  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.  However, young shoots are eaten after being THOROUGHLY cooked TWICE in separate waters. The berries were used for wine and, when THOROUGHLY cooked, pie.

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.  

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 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).  There are reports on the web 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.   TCM practitioners beware: the American cousin, which may have different properties, looks strikingly like the Asian herb. 

Sources and further reading:
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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