If you’ve ever lived in or visited the southern United States in late summer, you’ve probably noticed a wild plant, up to seven feet tall, by the side of the road with thick magenta stems, wide green leaves, and distinctive purple berries. The berries are arranged in clusters similar to those of a grape, but they aren’t edible. On the contrary, they are, like the entire plant, poisonous.
Despite this, pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) has been used for centuries for a variety of purposes. These range from dye to food to medicine, with significant caveats for the last two. In the course of elaborating these reasons, I hope to give you reason to reconsider pokeberry and its role in nature.
The most visible historical use of pokeberry, which was originally called pokon by Native Americans, is that of a dye. Shades of color ranging from purple to pink to mauve can reputedly be achieved. The dying process itself is somewhat involved and beyond the scope of this article, but if you attempt it, make sure that you take appropriate safety measures. These include gloves, face mask, good ventilation, and a separate pot which you should thereafter never use for food.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants, make sure you understand considerations for use.]
The most widespread historical use of pokeberry in the American South was in a preparation called “poke sallet” or “poke salad.” In some states, especially Arkansas, this was considered to be something of a delicacy.
To make poke sallet, immature pokeberry stems should be harvested as soon as they appear in early spring, before they start to branch out or turn color. They should be boiled at least three times (with a change of water between each boiling) to ensure that all toxins are removed. Then they can be pickled and stored, much like cucumbers or asparagus.
Even so, serious precaution must be taken at every step. Be sure never to eat the root of the plant. It is extremely poisonous and potentially lethal. Also be sure that the pot you use for boiling the stems is never used for anything else. And if you do choose to eat this plant after taking all necessary precautions, always remember it is at your own risk.
The most controversial historical use of pokeberry was in a folk remedy called Hoxsey Formula, named after its leading proponent, Harry Hoxsey, a coal miner who dropped out of high school and later became embroiled in a legal battle with the American Medical Association. He claimed to have successfully treated a number of cancer patients using his formula, but the AMA claimed otherwise. The result was a legacy of acrimony that can still be found on the web to this day.
The most sensible historical use for pokeberry was, and still is, as a food source for birds. Brown thrashers, bullfinches, cardinals, and catbirds all favor the plant and will gladly gobble up the berries once they’re ripe. As a result, pokeberry has a tendency to pop up in the most unexpected locations after being deposited with a packaging of natural biodegradable fertilizer by said birds.
So there you have it: four reasons to regard pokeberry as something at least slightly more beneficial than a mere “weed.” Obviously there’s no question about its toxicity to humans. But despite this it has much to offer. If only for the benefit to birds, those crucial but underappreciated pollinators, pokeberry has a vital role to play in our world today.