Pokeweed: Friend or Foe?
Manicured rows of a mystery plant about six feet tall rushed past us as my son and I were escorted in a golf cart across a friend’s backyard early last week. On the plants grew grape-like clusters of dark purple berries. “I have no idea what this is,” our friend said, hopping out of the cart. He plucked a berry cluster with his bare hand and brought it over for me to inspect. “The Hmong use this field. I don’t know what they grow these for.”
So I took the sample home to investigate.
Turns out the mystery plant is native pokeweed, a plant considered very poisonous (many children are taken to the hospital after eating the dark berries that they’ve confused for wild grape!), but the resident farmers decided it was—for some reason—worth cultivating and taking to the farmer’s markets up in the cities.
Other names for pokeweed, ranging from sounding terrifying to beautiful, include: American nightshade, cancerroot, crowberry, inkberry, and red ink plant.[i] But pokeweed, like anything on this beautiful planet, becomes less frightening the more we learn about it. Let’s start with erasing the scary with a little bit of knowledge.
Pokeweed, like anything on this beautiful planet, becomes less frightening the more we learn about it.
First, let’s not ignore the fact that all parts of the pokeweed plant—from taproots all the way to the berries—are toxic. However, though they have the capacity to harm, many indigenous and herbalistic cultures know that such plants, at low concentrations of ingestion, have the power to heal. One such group are the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico, who “routinely use potentially harmful plants to treat ailments ranging from headaches to chest pain...many of which contain compounds that pharmacologists consider highly toxic.”[ii]
And medical researchers are taking a hint. A chemical in pokeweed conveniently named Pokeweed Antiviral Protein, or PAP, is being researched as a treatment for cancer.[iii] It has been “shown in nonhuman studies to have anti-tumor properties and to have activity against herpes viruses and HIV.”[iv]
While adventurous horticulturalists and herbalists may decide to consume various parts of the pokeweed plant (after a liberal boiling… twice!) to remove toxins, I’d still suggest proceeding with caution. Even for me, I don’t want to mess with eating something toxic unless (1) I’m literally starving to death or (2) I have a very knowledgeable guide instruct me in the cooking and detoxifying process. As for exploring the land and foraging as you hike, Poison.org states “Children who eat a berry or two are not likely to develop symptoms. Eating several berries, though, can cause a lot of stomach distress: pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.”[v] So, how to distinguish between a wild grape and a pokeberry? The easiest way is by the color of the stem. Grapes have a brown, woody stem, while pokeberries have a bright, fuchsia-colored stem.
So what good are pokeweed for harvesting purposes? Well, aside from consumption, pokeweed’s berries make an excellent dye or ink. You can do a simple extraction of the juices using salt and vinegar, but the dye will brown over time. (In fact, if you see Civil War-era writing that looks brown, it probably started off as bright purple pokeberry ink!) Fermented dyes retain the signature fuchsia color for a longer period of time. For a recipe for fermented pokeberry dye, visit www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/120765-making-fermented-pokeberry-ink/.
Conclusion: Pokeweed is neither friend nor foe… it just IS! And it’s beautiful. If you stay away from eating them, pokeweeds pose no threat and actually serve as an excellent source of food for local wildlife.
Traversing nature need not be scary, but as always it’s good to be well-informed and remain alert. Many thanks to my curious friend who introduced me to yet another local wild treasure: the pokeberry!
[ii] "Food, drug, or poison?." The Free Library. 1993 Science Service, Inc. 26 Sep. 2019. URL: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Food,+drug,+or+poison%3F-a013787076. Accessed: 26Sept2019.
[iii] Johnson, Terry W. “Out My Backdoor: The Wondrous Pokeberry”, GeorgiaWildlife.com / Georgia Department of Natural Resources. https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-wondrous-pokeberry. Accessed: 26Sept2019.
[iv] Hack, Jason, M.D. “Toxicology Answer: Can This Toxic Plant Treat Certain Illnesses?”, ACEP [American College of Emergency Physicians] Now, 25Sept2018. URL: https://www.acepnow.com/article/toxicology-answer-can-this-toxic-plant-treat-certain-illnesses/. Accessed: 24Sept2019.
[v] Soloway, Rose Ann Gould (RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita Clinical Toxicologist), “Pokeberries: A Grape Lookalike”. National Capital Poison Center. URL: https://www.poison.org/articles/2012-aug/pokeberries-and-grapes-look-alike. Accessed: 26Sept2019.