Pokeweed- Phytolacca americana

I have started and stopped this entry at least a dozen times in the last few years. This is a contentious topic, for what is basically a weed. Let’s start with facts.
1.) Pokeweed is absolutely toxic.
2.) People can die from eating it.
3.) People eat it anyway.
Pokeweed is native to North America. It is everywhere and can be really invasive. It gets these giant radish like roots (I’m talking about Spirited Away radish god sized roots) and once it gets a start, the only way to get it out is to dig the root up. I’ve broken shovels getting them out of the ground. It is an annual battle. There is a fairly good Wikipedia article about them HERE. and Ohio State University has another fantastic article HERE.

This is what it looks like in it’s mature stage. The red stalk with green rubbery leaves is a dead giveaway. Even when the leaves are only an inch long in a sprout, that red on green is a dead giveaway.

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When it is fully mature, it will begin to get long white berry clusters that eventually get the same red stems and dark purple black glossy berries. That is often the only part that wild life eats, and it is birds. This plant is so toxic that animals won’t eat it. Let that sink in for a moment. Deer won’t eat it. Domestic animals WILL eat it, and thousands of them are poisoned nationwide every year, but wild animals won’t touch it. This is what a berry cluster looks like.

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What makes poke so toxic is phytolaccatoxin and phytoaccigenin. Both of which will kill you dead. Small quantities will only make you WISH you were dead. The roots of the poke have the highest concentrations of toxins, followed by the greens (which get more toxic the older they get) and the berries are the lowest n toxins. People regularly get poisoned eating poke, often children who eat the berries.

For some reason that I cannot understand in the slightest, people love to eat poke. There are entire festivals devoted to it. There is some sort of bravado and pride in those who eat it. I can’t tell if it is because of the brush with danger or what. Yes, yes, yes, I know that they advocate only the greens, when they are less than blah blah blah high and some say you have to boil them twice and change the water while other swear by cooking them in bacon grease and I’ve heard countless times about how grandpas, grandmas, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, best friends and on and on eat it and they haven’t died…. bully for them.

Fact: People get sick and die from eating pokeweed. Here’s a little info about poke poisoning HERE.

So the questions becomes.. why do they do it? Well, culture plays a part in it; bravado does as well. The element of danger perhaps attracts some folks. You want danger and wild greens? I have two words for you: Stinging nettle.

For some, it is the only wild green they know about, which is sad because there are better, more available, more nutritious and delicious greens available WAAAY before, during and after Poke comes up. Which greens you ask? Dead Nettle, Stinging Nettle, Henbit, Chickweed, Chenopodium (commonly called Lambs quarters) Plaintain, and Smartweed just to name a few. For those whose arguments are that it is the only green available THIS is the size they advocate eating, and there is Smartweed by the bucketful around it.

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Young poke, surrounded by smartweed

 

So to head the lambasting off at the pass- yes, I have eaten poke. It was at a festival both braised in bacon fat and boiled. It was disgusting. Before you claim that the chef didn’t cook it correctly, he had received some sort of award for his dishes at the very same festival. Poke just sucks.
No I didn’t get very sick, and obviously didn’t die, but I found that I did have the racing heart and thready pulse afterwards. It wasn’t pleasant. It didn’t taste good, at all. I wouldn’t even eat it if I was starving, because there are such better greens available. That can be eaten raw. No death. If you REEEEALY like your food dangerous, go pick some Stinging Nettle. It has to be cooked, yes, but it tastes good, won’t kill you, is good for you is much, much, MUCH more plentiful, and dangerous.  It isn’t called “stinging” nettle for no reason.

My short and sweet opinion of poke? Don’t. Just don’t. Learn other wild greens. I am not a fan of anything that requires complicated cooking to render it “safe” and what kind of texture is left after multiple water changes? Just don’t.

 

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Dear god, why would anyone eat that? It has always screamed ‘do not eat’ to me! Then again, I don’t eat rhubarb for the same reason (and I think it tastes kinda disgusting anyway). I never heard of anyone eating pokeweed. Live and learn! And I will live as no way would I try it 🙂

  2. Bahahaha!! That is pretty much how I feel about it, but I got talked into trying it and it was HORRIBLE. Still, people swear by it. All the best of things that will kill you dead, right???

    1. I’d much rather be killed by tasty things, if I have to go that way!
      I was intrigued by your sweating onions description, too. I hate them, they hate me – but can eat as much garlic as I want. Luckily the hubby hates them too, so it isn’t an issue for just us. But so many people love them – could you tell me if onion-lovers still like the cooked to death version? I’d love to be able to tell my friend who would like to cook for us about this method, it might make it easier on them? Maybe not…

  3. I actually like them better! There is a sweetness to them that you just don’t get from them otherwise.

    1. That is good to know! My family liked Vidalia onions best, for their sweetness. It would be nice to be able to say, ‘Maybe try this and you can make everyone happy!’

  4. Liz says:

    Hey, you are entitled to your opinion, and I respect that you don’t want to eat poke, and even that you encourage others not to eat it.

    But there are some things I’d like to say.

    I cannot find one factual case of a death from poke. There are no recorded cases, just old notes passed on from doc’s article to doc’s article that death is possible.

    Second, would you ask people not to eat potatoes? Probably not. Yet there are more reported cases of potato poisonings that of poke, that I can find. Potatoes are poisonous when they get old and turn green. The plant’s stem and leaves also contain poisons, and a child nibbling in a garden could be sickened, and theoretically die, just like with poke.

    Not trying to change your views, I just want to put my perspective out there, and yes I have eaten poke, and will continue to do so. I don’t do so for the bravado, as you put it, but because it is an abundant plant, part of our ancestral eating patterns, one which my grandmother ate regularly.

    1. If you had access to peer reviewed journals, there are, in fact, dozens of medically documented cases of poisoning by Phytolaccacae. Don’t presume that because you cannot google it that it does not exist on the deep net. It does. Further, I would actually caution people against eating potatoes as carb intakes are far in excess of our dietary needs.

      Anything in the Solanaceae family has toxic greens, and of course I would caution someone from eating them (greens).

      I suspect the real reason for your umbrage is contained in the last sentence. You perceive my ideology to be an insult to your grandmother; a treasured memory.

      The fact remains that it is poisonous, it does not taste good, is needlessly risky when there are much more abundant edibles available, and devoid of emotional attachment like yours, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that people eat something that is literally poisonous.

      I certainly find it interesting that you were so incensed by my post that you felt the need to write a long rebuttal rather than just move on.

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