Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Be Very Careful With Poke!

This is one of the lovely fall decorations we enjoy.  It's called Poke Weed.  Sometimes Poke Salit.
I've always been leery of eating poke greens.  MM begs me each year to relent and try a few.  I have eaten poke greens and they were excellent, I admit.  But I've been scared off by the warnings of their being variously poisonous, yet the "old-timers" of the Appalachians have always eaten poke.  They call it poke salit.  And they swear it's the best of all greens.  So, I thought I'd put a little study into the topic this morning and this is what I came up with...

Poke is a "weed" (only in the sense of its growing where one doesn't want it) and it's a lovely one!  In the fall the 5-8-foot bright red stalks make scarlet slashes in the landscape and the dark purple berries look so tempting. Both are poisonous.  
Now, some of you may know more than I do, and I would love to have you share your experience and knowledge on this topic.  Here's one woman's opinion:

"There are lot of misconceptions about this plant, and a lot of unnecessary dire warnings about how toxic it is. I guess they figure it's easier to scare folks away than to educate them and count on them to do things the right way. How sad.

Here's the truth about poke salat - phytolacca americana.

Poke salat, when it matures, develops purple colorations on its stalk, flower stem, and berries and seeds. It is the MATURE leaves, and purple stem and seeds that contain the poisonous substances. Young plants are safe, as is the juice.

Young poke without any hint of purple makes an excellent dish of greens similar to spinach. It must be parboiled, then should drained well and added to a skillet and fried in butter or bacon drippings. It's a meal fit for a king.

Mountain folk often make a wine from the berries, claiming that a small glass each day helps relieve their arthritis symptoms. They also make a jelly, discarding the seeds. Many southern cities have festivals in honor of poke, and many websites contain lots of information.

Poke plants are spread far and wide by birds who gobble up the berries, then deposit the seeds for miles around. In fact, the seeds are difficult to germinate artifically because they prefer going through the acid in a digestive tract and then get frozen before they will sprout.

Poke root is a herbal remedy that has been used for millenia with excellent results, but can be poisonous when used incorrectly, as sometimes happens with someone who doesn't know what they are doing.

Poke salat has a place of honor in my garden, and in my kitchen. "
Molly McBee

On the other hand, while the wild foods guy, Euell Gibbons--1911-1975, (Stalking the Wild Asparagus) does give credit to the poke as being "potherb par excellence" he gives much detail in terms of cooking it to avoid (his opinion, now) unhealthful consequences:

"Poke can also be prepared as leafy greens, but unlike spinach, it should be thoroughly cooked.  Gather only the young, unfolding leaves at the top of the sprout.  Follow the directions for cooking sprouts and you will have a tasty dish of greens."  Incidentally, Euell Gibbons passed away at age 64, if I recall correctly, in 1975.

Gibbons went on to say that the root, the stems and the berries are poisonous.

The Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs lists Poke Weed as "unsafe" suitable only for decoration.  Here's what this credible source says:  "While people have eaten the tender young shoots, it is best to keep poke out of the kichen.  Even when the leaves are picked young and boiled, they may be dangerous."  Rodales lists Poke as a "dangerous herb."  Here's what it says:  "The word on poke is 'don't' and it should be written in neon.  It has no known good effects and children who have eaten the inky berries have died.  The FDA says "narcotic effects have been observed.  Some have taken poke internally as a combatant for rheumatism, but overdoses have been FATAL.  Pokeweed is not therapeutically useful for anything.  It may act as an emetic and cathartic, but it does so because it is extremely toxic."

Finally, my opinion (Elora, here) is that any green that I have to cook until it is pulp to make it safe to eat, then slather with bacon grease to make it flavorable, and which possibly might be poisonous...I'll stick with spinach and Chinese cabbage, mustard greens,  and turnip greens, thank you very much!  It's a whole lot of trouble to fix poke greens compared to simply stir-frying the well-known green garden goodies.  All this parboiling and pouring out the water, and adding bacon fat in goodly amounts ...guess to me it seems like a lot of botheration. Or, perhaps if one has no other choices for greens, maybe then, it might be time to explore the culinary guidelines in more detail.

But let me know what you think.   


  1. I agree. We are fortunate to have so many other greens to eat that I'll decline the poke. I do know that many people, especially in the olden days were not so fortunate and poke greens were very important to them.

    Every year when I was a child my mother warned me not to make ink from the poke berries because it left permanent stains. And every year I couldn't resist and invariably came home with purple stains all over.

  2. Yep, we are rich in poke but the boiling routine dissuades me from trying it. It's a beautiful plant though.

  3. I feel a bit better, NCMW and Vicki, knowing neither of you chewed me out for not doing poke! I figured my NC friends would be defensive of their poke! Thanks for ratifying my hunches!