Pokeweed

Pokeweed berries are prolific, attracting birds to spread their seeds.

Common Name: Pokeweed, pokeberry, poke, inkberry, pigeonberry, scoke, garget, jalep, coakum, cancer root, red weed, American nightshade – Poke has many meanings including bag (pig in a poke) and prod (as a verb). In this case, it is neither. The poke of pokeweed is a derivative of the Native American Algonquian word puccoon, given to plants that are used for dying and staining (from pak meaning blood). The dark berries were used as a coloring agent (and later for ink as in inkberry). Its weediness accounts for the sobriquet pokeweed as the most popular of many choices. 

Scientific Name: Phytolacca americana –  Phyto is a Greek combination form that originally meant “to bring forth” now used to signify a plant. Lacca is a form of lac, which is of Sanskrit origin meaning a hard coating derived from a plant or animal (shellac or lacquer are derivatives). Several references state that lacca is from the French lac meaning lake and then suggest that this somehow refers to crimson berries. There is no indication in any etymology source that this is correct. The species name is in reference to its geographic habitat.

Potpourri:   The farraginous assemblage of common names for pokeweed that ranges from American nightshade to garget may seem to indeed be a hodgepodge. However, common names derive from colloquial preference according to local practice and lore. Pokeweed is among the most prolific of the so-called herbals that have a long history as medicinal treatments for ailments afflicting both people and their domesticated animals. This is due to the rich complexity of its chemistry,  created by the monophyletic forerunners of pokeweed to survive in the competition by natural selection. To complicate matters, pokeweed has also been historically consumed as food.  There is an obvious danger inherent to eating unspecified amounts of something that is also prescribed in exacting dosages for disease. Pokeweed is richly intertwined with American folklore and folk wisdom, which does not usually mean fact.

Pokeweed is hard to miss. Its red-tinged branches extend outward about four feet with alternate foot-long elliptical leaves and upward to a height of ten feet with a two-inch diameter smooth, purple-toned stem. It is an opportunistic plant (aka weed [1]) that rapidly spreads in disturbed areas. As a perennial, it can take over whole fields until the process of forest succession gradually succeeds in establishing a canopy of trees to block the full sunlight of its habitat. Mid-summer blooms of multiple white flowers in erect racemes succeed to  the dark purple berries of its inkberry alter ego in autumn, their ponderous masses hanging in drooping bunches.  Pokeweed is also the common name for the Phytolaccaceae family of plants that are mostly tropical, traditionally  consisting of 17 genera and 110 species ― P. americana is the only species in North America. [2] The upheaval of taxonomy attendant to the biological revolution of DNA has had a marked effect on the associations of many plant species. In the case of the pokeweed family, it now consists for only 4 genera and some 30 species in the  order Caryophyllales. [3] This will also certainly change in the future as the meaning of life is further deconstructed.

Pokeweed flowers are perfect

A single pokeweed plant can produce over 5,000 seeds and since they normally form a copse, a million berries per acre is not unreasonable. The number of berry/seeds alone would be enough to create a serious weed problem. It is only exacerbated by the fact that the seeds are spore-like in longevity, remaining viable in the soil for up to fifty years. [4] Berries are designed mostly for birds, the color contrasting with the chlorophyll green of their support structure and the shape and shine promising a nutritive dollop of carbohydrates. And birds are especially fond of pokeweed berries … notably the more ubiquitous robins, pigeons or doves, catbirds, and cardinals. Pokeweed has thus evolved into a self-replicator of invasive efficiency with birds serving as its unwitting ambassadors of dispersion. The perfect flowers and their bird-pleasing berries are enough to ensure a secure place at the survival of the fittest table. But pokeweed is anything but subtle, producing a variety of toxic chemicals that render its roots, stems, and leaves unpalatable to foraging herbivores.   

The more notorious poisons of pokeweed are named for the genus. Phytolaccatoxin is a triterpene saponin, a bitter tasting compound that is amphiphilic, which means that it is soluble in both water (hydrophilic) and oil (lipophilic) and can therefore interact directly with lipid-based cell membranes.   Phytolaccin is an alkaloid, which is a more generic name for a compound that is basic or alkaline vice acidic (alkali is derived from the Arabic word for ashes where the first “pot ash” potassium compounds were discovered), contains at least one atom of nitrogen, and is also usually bitter. [5] The propensity of non-bark protected herbaceous plants to create unique chemical compounds is fairly common. Random mutations over time favor those that ward off browsing quadrupeds and leaf eating insects, a classic survival of the fittest example.  Animals generally steer clear of anything that tastes bitter. Humans, even though our ability to taste bitter (as opposed to salt, sweet, sour, or savory/umami) is equally to prevent inadvertent poisoning, are not quite as observant. The Centers for Disease Control listed 94,725 plant poisonings in 1993 or which 2231 were due to pokeweed (the highest was philodendron). [6]

Pokeweed is eaten regularly as folk food in some rural areas of the United States even though it is widely recognized as poisonous. A popular field guide for edible wild plants includes pokeweed as both edible and poisonous, stating unequivocally in the poison section that “diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, sweating, reduced breathing capacity, or even death can occur from eating this plant.” In the more frequented edible section, it prescribes picking only the young shoots when they first come up in the spring, rejecting any tinged with purplish hues (presumably the color of the toxins), and avoiding leaves, stems, and especially the roots altogether. The gathered greens are then to be boiled and the water drained at least twice, cooked until tender, and consumed like asparagus with appropriate gustatory zeal, perhaps but not always without subsequent complications. [7] Apparently this tried and true method is not always true when tried. An FDA report cites a case in New Jersey where 52 campers were offered “pokeweed salad” prepared according to the double boil protocol by a camp counselor who “had been preparing pokeweed salad for many years without apparent ill effects.” About half of the campers experienced nausea and four required hospitalization due to severe vomiting and dehydration. The report, noting that the FDA was frequently consulted about the safety of wild foods, concluded with the caveat “consumers need to be aware that there are risks involved in eating wild plants of undocumented safety.” [8]

Poke sallet is one of the traditional dishes associated with southern cuisine ― like the barbecue, grits, and black-eyed peas that are among its myriad menu options. Its origins are eclectic, steeped in the rich cultural history of the American south with its admixture of African, Caribbean, French, and English influence. Poke from pokeweed and sallet as colloquial salad were concatenated to poke sallet as namesake for several annual festivals like that in Harlan County, Kentucky and for a top ten song written by Tony Joe White in 1968. Titled “Polk Salad Annie” according to the ethnic  illiteracy of the music trade, it was a paean to hardscrabble life in rural areas:  “Now, everyday ‘fore supper time she’d go down by the truck patch and pick her a mess o’ polk salad and carry it home in a tote sack.” Annie’s stalwart diligence was set against a backdrop of wretchedness in which “her daddy was lazy and no count” and “all her brothers were fit for was stealin’.”  The song winds down from pathos to bathos with “everybody said it was a shame ’cause her mama was a-working on a chain gang.” This calls to mind an old joke that asks: What happens when you play country music backwards? The wayward wife returns, the son gets out of jail, the hound dog doesn’t die, and the pickup truck starts.

Pokeweed berries are also accorded the status of being somehow poisonous and not so poisonous at the same time. Birds do eat them, but you certainly should not, even though they look temptingly tart. The notion that cooking removes the poisons from the shoots extends to the berries,  presumably because the offending chemicals are volatile and dissipate as vapor. The 1898 King’s American Dispensary notes tersely that “some have gone so far as to make pies of the fruit—a practice which, however, should be condemned.” As evidence, it is pointed out that severe vomiting resulted after eating pigeons that had fed on the berries. [9] Controlled laboratory testing proves that pokeweed berries are not so good for birds either. Groups of turkey poults were fed grain adulterated with between 0 and 10 percent liquified pokeberries and monitored for several weeks. Weight gain was inversely correlated  with pokeberry consumption (i.e. more pokeberry, less weight) and almost half died, dissection revealing that they had enlarged gall bladders. [10] This is surely an unintended consequence, as plants evolved berries so that animals like birds would eat them to propagate pokeweed (else why bother?). One possibility is that the toxins produced to protect the growing part of the plant were simply too good and contaminated the fruit that grew from them. Pokeweed berries are culturally important as dyes when liquified. During the antebellum period, a passable ink was made as an alternative to that made from oak galls … pokeberry cum inkberry is a vestige. Dolly Parton admits to using red pokeberry dye as lipstick (and honeysuckle as perfume) in her prepubescent youth. [11] Polk Salad Annie probably didn’t.

Poison in measured doses may be good medicine. The chem lab complexity of pokeweed made it one of the most popular herbal remedies of all time.  It all probably started with Native Americans, whose knowledge of medicinal plants resulted from centuries of trial and error. While the record is sketchy, there is documentation for the use of pokeweed for joint pain, kidney problems, as a poultice for swelling, and as a laxative. Pokeberry juice cocktails and pokeweed salads were popular, perhaps for salubrious purpose. It is also alleged to have been used ceremonially as a love potion and as an agent of witchcraft, suggesting that hucksterism may be a universal human trait. [12]  The reputed attributes of pokeweed as food and medicine were gradually assimilated by European colonists struggling to survive the rigors of the same wilderness. Absent FDA regulation in the pre-pharmaceutical era of American medicine, pokeweed was a case study in largely anecdotal treatment protocols. One noted medical reference cautioned that “death has followed an overdose (one-half ounce) of the berries or root, preceded by excessive vomiting and purging drowsiness” followed by an extensive list of curative uses including throat inflammation, goiter, breast inflammations, and the treatment of “syphilitic disorders” among many others. [13]  A pokeweed extract with the trade name Phytoline was advertised in a medical journal as “recognized by the medical profession as being the only remedy for the treatment of obesity that will absorb the fatty tissue in a great degree without any after-effects whatsoever.” [14] A little less pig in your poke.

Herbal remedies almost all lack the validation of clinical scientific studies that modern medicine requires as pedigree. While this is decried by those who swear by home remedies, human knowledge cannot be advanced without the unbiased reckoning of human trial data, which is always a costly enterprise. The category GRAS (generally recognized as safe) is an FDA middle ground to allow certain food additives to be sold without the expense of formal review. Who would pay for a clinical trial of a weedy plant free for the taking without some guarantee of a market to recoup the funds expended? It depends on many things, but some maladies are better than others, especially those with public health implications. Pokeweed extracts are a case in point. A group of pokeweed antiviral proteins (PAP) has been demonstrated in laboratory studies to have antiviral properties that are important to treatment protocols for cancer and HIV. [15] However, those tasked with actual care as a matter of the practice of medicine report unequivocally that “none of these effects have been seen in the human body.” [16]

It is somewhat ironic that the use of the term weed applies to any plant that has proven to be so successful in the struggle for existence. It is as if we, the  humans, want to discourage any other life form from being dominant in their own environment, relegating that honor only to our own species. There is something inherently weedy about humanity if the metaphor were applied fairly. Pokeweed should really be the Puccoon Plant that was a part of the indigenous North American ecosystem before the colonizing invasions. Prepared with care as food  and applied with wisdom as native medicine, it was a very welcome weed indeed.

References:

1.  https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PHAM4

2. Niering, W. and Olmstead, N. National Audubon Society of North American Wildflowers, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, p 679.     

3. Chase, M. et al. “An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III”. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 2003, 141  pp 399-436

4. Oneto, S. “Pokeweed: A giant of a weed!”. Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California 15 August 2018 at https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=27983

5. http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=220010427

6. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00035694.htm    

7. Elias, T. and Dykeman, P. Edible Wild Plants, A North American Field Guide, Sterling Publishing Company, New York, 1990 pp 96, 267.

8. Callahan, R. et al “Plant Poisonings, New Jersey” FDA # F07132 Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report 1981, Volume 30 Number 6, pp 65-67.

9. King’s American Dispensary https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/phytolacca.html

10. Barnett, B. “Toxicity of pokeberries (fruit of Phytolacca americana Large) for turkey poults.” FDA # F09892 Poultry Science, 1973, Volume 54 Number 4, pp 1215-1217.

11. https://www.vogue.com/article/dolly-parton-beauty-secrets-quotes-hair-make-up

12. Native American Ethnobotanical Database http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=pokeweed     

13. Ellingwood, F. MD, The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919 https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/ellingwood/phytolacca.html     

14. The Medical and surgical reporter July-December  1893. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania  Crissy  and  Markley Printers. p. 1561  sold by Walker Pharmaceuticals, Saint Louis, Missouri https://archive.org/stream/medicalsurgical691893phil/medicalsurgical691893phil#page/n1560/mode/1up    

15.  Foster, F. and Dule, J. Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2000, pp 64-65.

16. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/pokeweed   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s