Pokeweed roots and berries are poisonous, but young, tender leaves can make a tasty salad.
It’s a large. tall rapidly growing plant that appeared in the small flower garden plot on the west side of my deck. It grew with jack-in-the-bean stock rapidity.
Wife Phyllis and I stayed longer in Florida this spring due to a series of leg surgeries she had scheduled. When we returned home our wonderful neighbors, Scott and Sherry Wahl, plus daughter Shayna, had already cleaned out our flower beds.
(Nice to help out the old folks.)
Scott and Sherry encouraged me to leave this plant in flower bed and thought it was a flower.
I was convinced it is a big weed. Several similar plants appeared along the fence row, and I chopped them down. They did look vaguely familiar.
Know there is little difference from flowers to weeds. It’s a matter of perception. The best and simplest explanation I’ve heard is that a weed is a plant that make a gardner unhappy.
The plant in the flower garden isn’t making me happy. It has reached in excess of six-foot tall. So, weed is on my mind, not flower. But before I whacked it, I thought I would take a picture and use modern media, e.g. Facebook, to see if any of my outdoor friends could identify this soon to become weed plant.
So, I grabbed the old Nikon, snapped a couple of photos, posted one on Facebook, and add that the plant, “... does have some kind of flower or berry type blossom. Anyone know what it is before I chop it down.”
Within minutes, outdoor writer friend Alan Clemmons, managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine from Huntsville, Alabama, posted the answer. It was pokeweed Alan says it also is known as polk, and when consumed as poke salad. A popular song years ago, (even sung by Elvis) was “Poke Salad Annie”.
Soon after Alan identified the weed (at least it is a weed from my perspective), a number of other folks sent me information about the plant.
“Smaller, younger leaves and stems are edible but only with knowledge of how and when to use/eat. Berries turn purple, ooze a juice that stains. Birds eat 'em and poop out the seeds, helping it spread. I think Native Americans and folks in the 1800s used the berry juice as a stain for clothing, arrow shafts, etc.
“It's not necessarily a bad plant but it can overtake. I'd hack it unless you just want to keep it,” added Alan
And a key factor is the roots. berries and older leaves like in my photo are poisonous, according to Alan and others.
Carol Smith Gamble wrote, “It's "poke" Phil. The root system is huge. The berries & stems are "poisonous" - don't know how much so though. We eat the tender leaves cooked like turnip greens. Tastes good. I try to keep the berries cut off. Birds eat them like crazy and then plant them with their special brand of fertilizer. We have them everywhere here (Missouri).
Friend Patrick Gomer Roberson from Pikeville, TN, wrote, “Poke salad is said to be poisonous, however eating it ain't killed me yet! in the spring when you see it come up, pick the tender greens and boil. pour off the first batch of water and boil again, drain then fry up a batch of bacon, save the grease, chop an onion, add drained poke and onion in the grease and fry it up, crumble the bacon, add several scrambled eggs and enjoy some great eating.
“The stalk, when it is about an inch thick, slice like okra, corn meal then fry in hot grease, will taste almost like okra. I have also heard of saving the berries to treat arthritis as an elderly indian lady said she never had any problem with joint pain as she ate one berry every day. She froze enough for the entire year...” (yes, they are considered posionous).
Poke gets its name from an Indian word "pokan" which means any plant used to produce a red or yellow dye. It even has a political connection. Leaves of pokeberry were worn on the lapels of supporters of the first dark-horse candidate for president, James Polk who served from 1845 to 1849 and for whom Polk County is named.
Try poke salad if you like, but stay away from roots and berries, using only young leaves properly prepared.