Pokeweed is both a poison and a medicine, a nuisance and a joy. But to those who understand this storied plant, its paradox reflects the gritty yet graceful character of its supporters.
In the ballad “Polk Salad Annie,” Elvis Presley growled out a story that described a wretched, spiteful woman who toted a straight razor and dined on a leafy, poisonous plant.
To many gardeners, Elvis gave pokeweed its proper tribute. Who — other than a cantankerous she-devil who “made the alligators look tame” — would grow the stuff, let alone eat it?
To start with, pokeweed — or poke, or pokeberry — is a gangly plant, beanpole-skinny at the bottom and topped off with an unruly wig. Second of all, let poke grow unchecked, and it’ll send out a 10-foot taproot harder to yank out than an old plumbing pipe.
But its most vile quality, to poke-haters everywhere, is the toxins inside. Knowing that people can die from eating Phytolacca americana should make avoiding it a no-brainer. Rip out this bane of the garden, goes the common advice.
“I don’t know of anybody who cultivates it,” says C.R. Bell, founding director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. “It’s got several strikes against it. One, people don’t like greens, like spinach, from being a kid. The other is, people don’t know poke from other plants. And the other is, it’s poisonous.”
But don’t let this criticism fool you. Bell is a poke-lover.
He eats a little every day, and he’s never had so much as a stomachache.
Take a second look at this misunderstood plant, and you’ll find a weed with a rare and satisfying color. Ken Moore, garden columnist for the Carrboro Citizen, calls it his favorite plant and describes being stopped in his tracks when he passes its bright red stems.
Not to mention good eating. If you carefully boil the leaves two or three times, you’ll produce a pot of vitamin-rich greens tastier than turnips.
And if you listen to folk-medicine practitioners, you’ll hear that poke used correctly can ward off rheumatism, syphilis, hog cholera, and the seven-year itch.
“Eat a little bit every day, and you’ll sail through life,” Bell says.
Poke’s biggest fans
The thing is, the polk salad song Elvis borrowed from Louisiana-born guitarist Tony Joe White doesn’t disparage the leafy green. All his talk about chain gangs and watermelon thieves just illustrates the gritty folk who favor poke, and you needn’t be gritty to enjoy what’s wild and natural.
A perennial found nearly everywhere in the country, poke can grow eight feet tall, producing white flowers and berries that turn from green to pink to wine-dark purple.
Once the pokeberries appear, they draw flocks of birds that devour them and leave behind purple droppings full of seeds. If you want a forest of poke, just let these droppings lie.
“I got fascinated one summer by the antics of mockingbirds and catbirds who fought raging contests to keep the others off the poke,” Moore says, imitating them. “ ‘That’s my poke!’ ‘No, that’s my poke!’ ”
But to some, pokeweed is fit for public display, not just the backyard.
Sally Heiney, horticultural technician at the botanical garden, counts herself among poke’s biggest fans. She knows of a nursery in Indiana that sells six different kinds of poke, and in England, they grow poke cultivars for their eye-catching quality. Heiney proudly grows them in the Chapel Hill garden.
“How is it that in Europe one of our weeds is valued?” she asks. “I have a poke in the middle of the flowering-plants section expressly for the purpose of saying, ‘Stop laughing at that.’ They’ll point, and go, ‘Look at that!’ All their lives, they’ve been told it’s a weed.”
Pokeweed shares the hands-off, forbidden quality that keeps many dishes from being more widely enjoyed.
How many people look at a prickly pear and think about tossing a few pads in with their scrambled eggs? But anyone who has sampled huevos con nopales, or eggs with cactus, will tell you that it’s worth pulling on a pair of rubber gloves and extracting every needle. Likewise, the state is filled with chitterling lovers, all of whom prescribe vigorous preboiling, and a few of whom advocate a drop or two of bleach.
Pokeweed as a side dish requires the same tenacity, not to mention courage. The United States Department of Agriculture classifies pokeweed’s toxicity as “slight,” and even die-hard poke-backers say the leaves will never touch their lips. Polk Salad Annie only picked a mess of it, as Elvis explained, because that’s all her family had to eat.
The National Institutes of Health warns that poke leaves are not guaranteed safe even if boiled twice, and the roots should never be eaten.
Moore’s advice is direct: “I wouldn’t try it.”
But recipes for poke salad abound. A festival pops up in Alabama each year. Tennessee has a society.
Bell boils his poke leaves twice. Other recipes call for three boils, each with fresh water. The taste, when finished, approximates asparagus seasoned with bacon drippings. The saying goes, among those who might also sample hog maws and pigs’ feet, that there’s no food like scary food.
Inside Paul Green’s Plant Book, the alphabet of plants penned by the famed North Carolina playwright, you’ll find the story of old McIntyre Prewett, who reputedly lived to be 125.
“And you know what made him live so long?” the book inquires. “I asked him that once, and he looked at me out of his little squeezed, squinched-up eyes and he said, ‘Why, poke salat, poke salat.’ Then in the wintertime he lay up like a bear and drank cornmeal gruel made with water. Yessir, I recommend poke salat and meal gruel for these vitamin folks.”
One old story tells of Civil War soldiers fresh from the battlefield, nursing wounds and deep longings, who plucked pokeberries and used them to write letters home. But the poke plant can cure more acute ailments than homesickness, according to generations of folk remedies.
Moore once knew a woman he recalls only as Hazel who collected pokeberries in pint jars and drove them to Charlotte to make tea for an aging, rheumatic aunt. The old woman took three berries, dried, in the morning and afternoon.
Again, the traditional medical sources give poke no value. Georgetown University Medical Center cites no medicinal use for poke, although its components do show up in laboratory studies.
Still, home cures endure.
Green’s Plant Book tells the story of old Prentice Thornwell who had a terrible case of “the itch” and resorted to worm grease and possum-gut salve in his frustration. Seeing his persistent scratching, Miss Hettie Crews told him how pokeroot could be beaten to a pulp, mixed with hot water, and used for a bath.
As Green’s book tells it, Thornwell filled a barrel with the liquid remedy, dove in, and emerged screaming, as if a million hornets were stinging him. He jumped into a creek for relief, and his ailment disappeared.
“Yessir, the itch never bothered him for the rest of his three score years and ten,” the book explains. “In fact, his hide was so tough that he could run through a briar patch and never get scratched.”
Modern sufferers may shy away from the sensation of hornet stingers or skin as tough as rawhide, but there’s no doubting the presence of something special inside the common plant. It speaks to a more rugged sensibility, the kind of greens-lover who would rather soak spinach and scrub collards than buy ready-to-eat leaves in plastic bags.
As Elvis told his crowds, pokeweed is waiting out in the woods and fields, ready to get carried home in a tote sack, eager to please a discerning eye and a sturdy belly.
North Carolina Botanical Garden
100 Old Mason Farm Road
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27517
Josh Shaffer writes for The News & Observer in Raleigh.