Sunday, May 15, 2011

POKE: The Jedi of the Plant World

Phytolacca Americana, aka: poke, pokebush, pokeberry, pokeroot, polk salad, polk sallet, inkberry, ombú, American pokeweed, cancer-root, cancer jalap, pocan, pigeon berry, reujin-d-ours, sekerciboyaci, skoke, virginian poke, yoshu-yama-gobo, yyamilin.

“I had been over-warned by veteran southerners not to eat the berries of the poke bush and to cook the salad (leaves) three times, rinse and throw off the water each time and then season just like collards. I've seen poke salad as tall as four feet high with long leaves that resemble spinach. Stalks of deep crimson berries jettied out of the leaves. They looked sensuously sweet and delicious and the birds delighted in their fruits. Most people said the berries were poisonous. Poke salad grew wild and plentiful in the southern landscape from Appalachia to Florida. If one needed a quick green to cook, poke salad was the choice because it was free and you usually found it close by. . . “ excerpt from the book, Working the Roots by Michele E. Lee

Immortalized in the song “Poke Salad Annie” sung by Elvis Presley and written by Tony Joe White, the poke bush is a powerful and potent plant that has a multitude of miraculous properties or it can be deadly dangerous. Some say the berries are poisonous. Many ol’ timers disagree and swear by their curative properties and simply say, “you have to know how to use the berries as medicine.” Over the centuries the poke bush has been used as:

• food
• medicine to treat ailments that range from skin conditions to
cancer and HIV
• moonshine
• ink for writing famous documents like the Declaration of
• Rock ‘n Roll lyrics
• a dye on solar panels to increase energy absorption


Grown throughout the east coast and flourishing in the south, the poke bush is known as the poor man’s green. Free and plentiful, those of you with southern roots have heard of eating Poke Salad. You prepare them like collards or turnips. But, be careful because many parts of the poke bush can be toxic if not used carefully. You won’t eat the leaves of the poke bush in a salad but you cook them like collards or turnips, with one little variation. You have to boil them in a pot of water three times, and throw off the water each time. Then you can eat them. Why? The leaves carry the toxins, phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin which are poisonous to mammals, if not prepared correctly. Cooking the leaves and throwing the water off two to three times, reduces the toxins enough to eat without cause. You may be wondering why would anyone go through such trouble to eat a green. Well imagine if you had no money to buy or even grow food. . .


(courtesy The vivid red berries and the root have been used in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, immune stimulation and for a variety of skin disorders. Old timers make pokeberry wine to treat arthritis. Even though medical professionals caution against their use, the people of Appalachia, Native tribes and southern Black folks have used the berries as medicine for generations. Below is a testimony from Ms. Oscelena Harris of Madison, Georgia sharing how she came to know the healing power of the pokeberry:

“I still use all this medicine on my grandkids and children. They still comes to me first when they get sick. I brought mines up on medicine like that. I would work and wouldn’t make nuthin’, bout two dollars a day, and I didn’t have nuthin’ to carry to the doctor. I had a l’il boy, my baby boy, he had sores. Great big husky sores all over him and I thought it was infitaigo (impetigo).1 I don’t care what I done for him, it wouldn’t cure them sores. Every year he break out the same way. So, this lady live next door to us, she was an Indian lady. She say, “What’s wrong with him?”
I say, “I don’t know I done everythang I can. I carry him to the doctor, I done everythang I know.”
She say, “I tell you what you do. You see that poke berry bush out yonder?” She say, “You take him out there and let him eat nine poke berries that are ripe.”
“If you don’t know how to eat them, the pokeberry is poison. But she told me to take him out there and let him eat nine off that bush, don’t let him eat but nine. I took my baby out there and let him eat nine pokeberries. He lost some scales and then he lost them all. Never found out what it was. So, every year I made my kids go out there and eat 9 poke berries. They don’t be breakin out with them sores neither.

Ms. Dot in her yard, Madison, Georgia, 1999. photo: Michele E. Lee

“For hives or rash, you use pokeberries, the nine pokeberries. Everybody say the pokeberries is poison but they ain’t poison, my grandmother used to make pokeberry wine. That’s my Indian grandmother. My aunt used to make wine out of it too and sell it to people and folks who come from long way off. She say she had people come from Tennessee to buy her pokeberry wine. She would make it every year. Folks would come and buy it by the gallon. There still a lot of pokeberry bushes here in Madison, Georgia.


I cook the greens from the poke sallat bush. Cook ‘em just like collards and turnips. Wash ‘em and put ‘em on in your pot. Some folk cook ‘em with turnip salad. I cook mine just regular, cuz the doctor told me one time everybody oughta eat too much of poke salad cuz it cleanses out your system. I freeze it. It taste good. When you use it by itself it taste like spinach.”

Pokeberries and pokeroot have similar properties and constituents. They are both anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and will stimulate your immune system. Poke tinctures can be taken both internally and externally for numerous conditions. It contains vitamins A, C and the minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus, and iodine. 

Poke Root has a long history as a cancer-fighting herb. One of its name is Cancerroot. It stimulates lymphocyte production and increases the number of blood plasma cells. Recent medical studies in Germany and the United States are even finding healing agents of the pokeweed plant to have anti-cancer and anti HIV properties. Poke’s antiviral proteins inhibit HIV-1 production in patients.

Tinctures are made from the berries and the root to treat:
sore throat, strep throat, tonsillitis, and other throat and mouth diseases
severe colds, flus and respiratory infections
swollen lymph glands
breast cysts
gum infections
genital herpes
lyme disease
thyroid and spleen ailments
numerous skin conditions from acne to scabies to boils

Instead of making a tincture, many southern folks just eat a specified number of berries that they determined, over time, was the correct dosage to treat their ailment. But they make sure to never chew the berries, or eat the seeds which are poisonous.

(pokeroot, courtesy

For information on the healing agents of pokeberries pokeroot and how to make pokeberry wine, tinctures, dosage and testimony visit these sites:

American Cancer Society

Holistic Wellness
Home Remedy Central:
Image 6
The berry is by far the most versatile part of the Poke Bush and has been used in many interesting ways over centuries. In addition to being used for medicine and moonshine, the juice yields a rich sanguine dye. Native Americans once used it to decorate their horses. The Declaration of Independence was written in the red ink of fermented pokeberry juice and Civil War soldiers wrote letters to loved ones using pokeberry ink. But, it was Benjamin Lay, the outspoken abolitionist Quaker who came up with the most creative use for the pokeberry. He burst into one meeting of Philadelphia's Quaker leaders and plunged a sword into a hollowed out Bible filled with blood-red pokeberry juice, which he then sprayed in the shocked faces of the slave-owners.2 From here on, pokeberry juice became a symbol of blood for the anti-slavery movement. One person's poison is another's medicine.
Today, the vivid red of the pokeberry is used to make paint, natural plant dye and in magical wiccan workings. Below is a recipe for dye used in magic work:

• 2 Cups pokeweed berries
• 1 tsp vinegar
• A glass jar or bottle
Mash the berries into a pulp in a small strainer over your jar. This will allow the juice to seep into the jar while the skins and seeds of the berries remain behind. Crush the berries as much as you can.
Image 6a
Once you have the juice in the jar, add the vinegar and mix thoroughly. This will help thin the ink enough to use it in a fountain pen, as well as preventing spoilage.

For more information go to:


Pokeberry dye + Fiber could provide low cost solar power for developing nations

Image 7

Since the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to 2011, the Poke Bush and it’s amazing berries continue to be the JEDI of the plant world. “Today, the bright-colored weeds are being used for a far more modern purpose. Researchers at Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials created low-cost, fiber-based solar cells that work more efficiently when coated with a layer of pokeberry dye. The dye allows the fibers to absorb twice as much power as current flat cell technology and will convert even more sunlight to power. Scientists hope the cheap solar cells combined with a common plant will help provide inexpensive electricity to developing nations like those in Africa. The pokeberries can be grown locally and the system could create a low-cost and environmentally friendly method of providing electricity to those who normally live without power.

Image 8

The above passage was excerpted from an article written by Sarah Parsons for 4/30/10


And finally, I’ll conclude this post with an excerpt of the lyrics to Poke Salad Annie:

If some of ya'll never been down South too much... 

I'm gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you'll understand what I'm talking about 

Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin' like a turnip green. 

Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad. 

Used to know a girl that lived down there and 

she'd go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it... 

Carry it home and cook it for supper, 'cause that's about all they had to eat, 

But they did all right. . . 

Polk salad Annie polk salad Annie 

Everybody said it was a shame 

Cause her mama was working on the chain-gang.

To hear the song performed by Tony Joe White and Johnny Cash on Youtube:




  3. You DO know there are TWO separate, distinct plants...Pokeberry plant and Poke salad? Pokeberry plant leaves are poisonous, poke salad is not. Pokeberry is tall (mine get over 10 ft tall), poke salad grows more like big leaf lettuce....tallest we've had is 3 ft...and that was unusual.

  4. You DO know there are TWO separate, distinct plants...Pokeberry plant and Poke salad? Pokeberry plant leaves are poisonous, poke salad is not. Pokeberry is tall (mine get over 10 ft tall), poke salad grows more like big leaf lettuce....tallest we've had is 3 ft...and that was unusual.