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Sunday, August 25, 2013

That Southern delicacy, pokeweed

(Originally posted at The Nature of Things.)

Update 08/28/13: I'm linking this post to the Wildflower Wednesday meme at Gail's Clay and Limestone blog. Visit Gail to see a list of other posts about some of our wonderful and interesting native "weeds."


If you are a person of a certain age, you may remember the summer of 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind" on the Moon. Around that same time, there was a song that was very popular and was getting a lot of play on the radio. It was called "Poke Salad Annie" and told the story of a poor Southern girl who picked a wild plant called pokeweed and cooked it as a vegetable.

Annie, however, would have actually called her vegetable "poke salet." It is a vegetable that many poor Southerners were then, and probably still are, very familiar with. It is properly known as pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and it grows wild and rampantly in the eastern United States. It is a member of a family of perennial potherbs that are native mostly in Africa and the New World.

The plant's name supposedly is derived from the Algonquian word "pakon" or "puccoon" which referred to a dye plant. It is also sometimes spelled "Polk" and its leaves were adopted as symbols in the political campaigns of the 11th president of the United States, James K. Polk.

The funny thing about this plant is that the young, tender leaves which are used as a green vegetable like spinach are highly toxic. Anyone who wants to eat it must be very careful to handle it properly or their meal could wind up making them very sick. The leaves must be boiled twice and the first water discarded.

In spite of the labor-intensive preparation needed, many people do look forward to picking those first leaves that poke out of the ground in spring. And, in fact, in some specialty markets, you can even find the canned, preserved leaves prepared and ready for you to eat.

The Allens use the traditional Southern spelling of the plant on their cans.

Several years ago, pokeweed got started as a weed in my garden, probably planted there by a birds. The berries of the plant are greatly loved by birds, and since I love the birds, every year I leave one or two of the plants to grow in my garden. From those tiny, dark green leaves that first poke out of the ground in the spring, the plant will grow rather quickly into a robust shrub. The one that is growing in my backyard this year is about eight feet tall and just as wide.

This is the rangy pokeweed shrub in late August, many of its ripened berries already stripped by the birds.  

In late spring, the plant begins to produce long clusters, or racemes, of white flowers and the shrub can be quite attractive when covered in these flowers. The flowers draw the pollinators in droves and slowly those flowers become green berries. Over the summer, the berries ripen into a shiny purple-black and birds come from all around to devour them. (The toxicity of the plant seems to have no effect on birds.)

The berries don't last long once they ripen. You can see that some of the ones on this raceme have already been plucked by the birds even as some at the tip are still green. Northern Mockingbirds, in particular, love these berries and do daily battle over them.

The berries were highly prized in earlier days as a source for dye or for use as a red ink. It was sometimes even used to help color wine, a chancy practice since the berries, too, are poisonous for humans. Today, the plant is prized mostly by habitat gardeners like me and by those adventurous souls who like to live on the wild side and pluck their food from Mother Nature's own garden, the descendants of Poke Salet Annie. 

19 comments:

  1. This would be a wonderful post to add to Wildflower Wednesday, hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone! It's a once a month meme, and Wednesday of this week is it. The blog is clayandlimestone dot com or you can find it on the sidebar of my blog.
    I've eat poke salet all my life - a Spring tonic! We always change the cooking water two or three times insead of just once. I am so surprised to see it canned by Allens.
    Have a wonderful week!
    Lea
    Lea's Menagerie

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    1. I usually forget about Gail's meme. Thanks for reminding me. I'll try to participate this month.

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  2. Great post - taught me something new. Also, this reinforces the notion that there is no such thing as a "weed" to a die-hard gardener. I will have to keep a lookout for this plant in my yard.

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    1. It's true that many of the plants that we think of as weeds are very interesting and actually very useful plants.

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  3. What a very interesting post! I had no idea that people eat pokeweed! Thank you for the education(as usual)!

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  4. We had a large tree cut down, and even though we live in the PNW, a poke plant sprang up there, I don't know from whence? I was not sure of the ID until it made berries, and didn't try to eat the greens, by then it was too late anyway. I have seen the dried root sold for a medicinal tea. Good information!

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    1. Hmmm...medicinal tea? Just one more use for this versatile "weed."

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  5. Yes, I do remember that song! At the time, I had no idea what the lyrics referred to, but I did a little research myself a few years ago when I found a huge specimen of pokeweed hidden behind our barn. It was eventually cut down, but every year I find a few volunteers in various parts of the garden. Like you, I leave a couple of the plants for the birds and because I think they're actually rather attractive when in bloom or covered with berries. Funny that you can actually buy the leaves in cans!

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    1. Yes, I was surprised that it is actually available commercially. I found that picture online. I confess I've never actually seen it in stores.

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  6. Huh, interesting! I admit I didn't know much about Pokeweed until I read this post. The berries are so pretty.

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    1. The berries and the flowers are really pretty and the shrub is quite attractive when covered in either, but, of course, the berries don't last long at all. There's always a bird around to gobble them.

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  7. Live and learn - had no idea what the song meant until today. Thought that just the berries were poisonous - leaves too, and people eat them..... Have you tried them, what do they taste like? Amazing.
    B

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    1. I have never eaten them, but when I was growing up, I had an uncle who swore by them. He eagerly awaited those first leaves in spring and insisted they were much tastier than any domesticated greens.

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  8. Mama used to cook it. I wouldn't eat it on a dare now.

    I think the most attractive part is the red stems. I've tried to think of a use for them -- they retain the color when dried.

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    1. The stems are attractive. I have a childhood friend who told me of one of our neighbors who used to fry the stems! She said she once ate some of the fried stems and that they tasted a bit like okra.

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  9. I love pokeberry plant! I think it's a beauty and looks wonderful near tall white verbesinas. Did you know the Declaration of Independence was written with in made from the berries? I kid you not! It's an all American wildflower! Happy WW! gail

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    1. I did not know that! What a wonderful tidbit from history. Thanks, Gail.

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