DON’T MAKE A SALAD FROM “POLK SALAD ANNIE”. By: Allan Smith

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GET TO KNOW THE POKEWEED PLANT (Phytolacca americana)

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By Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges has been teaching ethno-botany since 1974, and has authored nearly two dozen books on self-reliance and survival.  More information is at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]

 Poke is actually a toxic plants that has a long history in the South and Eastern states as a good spring food, when properly prepared.  I first encountered pokeweed while living on my grandfather’s farm in Ohio during the summers.  As it matures, poke is a large and fairly distinctive plant so once you’ve seen it a few times, you really can’t confuse it with anything else.

A big misconception about eating poke resulted from the popular 1969 song by Tony Joe White called “Polk Salad Annie.” The song was about a girl who picked poke weed, and knew how to prepare it.  But if you’re from the South, you know that White should have spelled it “Poke Sallet,” since “salad” suggests you eat poke raw – you can’t! – and “sallet” refers to cooked greens, which is the proper way you must prepare poke.

In the spring, the first poke shoots are collected, boiled, and the water discarded. The greens are then boiled again, and then discarded again. Then, after that, you can season and eat the greens.  At that point, you can season them with any of the traditional dressings, like bacon fat or butter, or add the greens to soup or casseroles.

“The young poke shoot”, Photo by Malcolm McNeil

Here is how herbalist Susun Weed describes the processing of poke greens: “To make your own sallet: Collect very young poke greens as early as possible in the season (late April to mid-May in the Catskills, as early as February in Georgia). Pour boiling water over the greens and boil them one minute. Discard water. Add more boiling water and again boil the greens for one minute. Discard the water. Do this at least twice more before attempting to eat the greens. If you fail to leach out the poisonous compounds — or are foolish enough to attempt to eat poke leaves raw — your mouth and throat will feel like they are on fire, you may vomit, and you will no doubt have copious diarrhea.”   That’s doesn’t sound like something enjoyable.

There seems to be scant data in the literature about the use of poke berries for food.  I have often read that the berries are poisonous and could kill you and that you should never eat them.  According to Donald R. Kirk, author of “Wild Edible Plants of Western North America,” “The berries are reported by some to be edible, and by others to be poisonous.  Those that use them make them into pies and jellies.”

On our farm, we cooked the berries and made pie.  My uncles grew up eating poke pie that their  father (my grandfather) made and always enjoyed it.  As a new poke eater in my late teens, I simply boiled the mashed fruits,  strained out the seeds, sweetened it, and added it to a pie crust.  It did have a characteristic and unique flavor, but we all ate it and no one got sick.  To be fair, some people really love the flavor of cooked poke berries and some will never try it again after the first taste.  It’s not what I’d call an acquired taste – but it is a unique flavor.

Since everyone’s body chemistry is different, I would suggest that you proceed with caution if you decide to try this.

Susun Weed points out that the small seeds in the berries are poisonous. “Lucky for us,” she writes in sagewoman.com, “they are too hard for our teeth to break open. I have had pokeberry jam (no worse than blackberry jam, that is, seedy) and pokeberry jelly (ah, no seeds) and pokeberry pie (seedy). Since children are attracted to poke plants and since the berries leave telltale stains on children’s mouths and since many parents are frightened if their child eats anything wild, and since medical personnel know little about poke except that it is poisonous, lots of kids have their stomach pumped (for no good reason, since they can’t break open the seeds either) after investigating the taste of poke berries.”

“The poke plant growing on the grounds of the Museum of the American Indian on the Mall”

These days, when I read about people getting sick from products made from poke berries, I tend to be a bit more cautious.  I would suggest mashing the fruits, straining out all seeds and then boiling it thoroughly.  Yes, there are those who always bring up the fact that hard-boiling can destroy some vitamins.  Yes, but it’s either that or vomiting!  I prefer the former!   Or just avoid these berries altogether and stick to strawberries and grapes.

The poke berries can also be crushed and made into a paint for artworks, and possibly fabrics.  I experimented a little with the ink, and found it to be a refreshing color when brushed onto white art paper.

CAUTION:

Yes, you might read in some herbal that the root is good for certain maladies.  I suggest that you just leave the root in the ground! The root has sometimes been suggested as a remedy for various inflammations, mastitis, rheumatism, etc., by trained herbalists.

Nevertheless, the root should be considered toxic unless you have taken the time to learn how to use it properly.  Consider the following case:  On January 26, 1976, Beverly Dixon was strolling through a Madison, Wisconsin shopping mall, and largely on impulse, purchased a box of “dried powder of pokeweed.”  It came with instructions on how to brew it into tea, and it had an attractive picture on the box of the beautiful berries.

An hour and a half after Dixon drank the tea, she began to vomit and had severe cramps and pain. Her husband rushed her to the intensive care unit at the University Hospital where her stomach was pumped.  She was hospitalized 22 hours in all, and fortunately recovered.

I have often been asked if poke can be confused with any poisonous plants.  Well, in fact, poke is  a poisonous plant, and so if you eat the young shoots, be sure to cook them twice as described here so you won’t get sick.

AIDS TO IDENTIFICATION

“The author photographing a poke plant in a residential area of Virginia”, Photo by Helen W. Nyerges

Pokeweed is a bushy perennial that can grow up to seven feet and taller in some cases. It’s very common throughout the South and Eastern U.S., but not so common in the West.

In the spring, several stems can emerge from the taproot, and these stems become conspicuously deep red to purple, and become branched in the upper part of the plant as it grows older. The large leaves  smooth, shiny, and fleshy.   You can find poke growing in the urban, rural, and wilderness sites.

 The individual leaf shape is elliptical to egg-shaped and tapering to a point at the tip.  The leaf stalk can be from a half-inch to two inches long. It is not unusual to find mature poke leaves that are a foot long.

The whitish-green flowers are produced in unbranched nodding clusters around six inches long, at the ends of the stems and upper branches.  Flowers are approximately ¼ inch wide, composed of five sepals which resemble petals.  The dark purple berries follow, formed in clusters in the fall. These berries are 8 to 10-chambered, shiny, and with one seed per chamber. Berries are round, flattened, and turn from green to dark purple as they mature. The clusters of the fruit become heavy as they mature, and the clusters droop on the plant.  The plant readily reproduces from the seeds of the fruit when they drop, or are spread by animals.

          The most recent book by Christopher Nyerges, focusing on Virginia, Maryland, and the Washington DC area.