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Pokeweed – the edible plant that also makes an excellent poison (good for dye and maybe even arthritis too)

Mature Pokeweed plant with plenty of red stems visible

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Pokeweed shootsThe Pokeweed plan, also known as Virginia Poke, American Nightshade, Cancer Jalap, Coakum Garget, Inkberry, Pigeon Berry, Pokerood, Pokeberry, Redweed, Scoke, and Red Ink Plant, may grow as high as 3 meters (9 feet). It has a large white taproot and green or pinkish red (as it matures) stems.  Its coarsely textured, medium green leaves are elliptic and up to 1 meter (3 feet) in length. Its white flowers will be followed by purple to almost black large clusters of fruits in late spring.  The fruits begin green, turn white, and finally blackish purple.

Where to Find: Look for this plant in open, sunny areas in forest clearings, in fields, and along roadsides in eastern North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Edible Parts: Young Pokeweed leaves and new pokeweed flowersThe young leaves and newer stems are edible cooked.  Mature plants (over 7 inches tall or with deep red stems) contain high concentrations of toxins and should be boiled three times or avoided if possible.

Harvest the poke shoots by taking the tender tips, avoiding leaves with any purple coloration.  Be sure to avoid taking too much of the shoot, especially near the root where high concentrations of toxins are found.  Wash the leaves and then boil them for about 20 minutes.  Strain the old water out, discarding the water from the first boiling, and boil again for 10 minutes.  Drain it again and put it in the third water to boil again, this time adding any seasonings such as salt or garlic.

Even after repeated boiling, pokeweed tastes very strong and bitter.

Young Pokeweed flowersThe berries (or more accurately, the seeds within the berries) are considered poisonous, even if cooked.  Theoretically the berries could be cooked and eaten if the seeds were removed but since the seeds are small, difficult to remove, and highly toxic, it’s safer to just avoid eating the berries altogether.

Note: All parts of this plant contain Oxalic acid, Lectins, and other toxins and are poisonous if eaten raw.  Never eat the underground portions of the plant as these contain the highest concentrations of the poisons (as do the seeds). Do not eat any plant over 25 centimeters (10 inches) tall or when red is showing in the plant.

Other Uses: Use the juice of fresh berries as a dye.

Do not handle Pokeweed with open cuts or sores.  The plant contains Mitogens which stimulate the immune system and can cause cancer.

Old timers have claimed to eat a single raw pokeweed berry per day to ward off arthritis.

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