Pokeweed: America’s Tasty Salad and Highly Poisonous Plant

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PHOTO: Mature Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed) in a field in Macomb County.
PHOTO: Mature Phytolacca americana (Pokeweed) in a field in Macomb County. These plants are to be avoided long before they reach this maturity.

I’m sure that for the unsuspecting outsider the sight of my 110-lb granny climbing a West Virginia hillside with a burlap sack tied around her shoulder would have proven to be quite a spectacle – especially when she’d hunch over and begin filling her bag with what would appear to the untrained eye as nothing more than a bunch of weeds.

If asked what she was planning to do with all those “weeds”, I have no doubt that this 5ft.-nothing tower of a woman would have replied with something akin to, “these here ain’t no weeds – this is my poke salad.”

As a child, I can’t remember how many times I enjoyed a “second heap’n” of granny’s poke salad – little did I know at the time, I was actually eating one of the more poisonous plants in all of Appalachia!

Naturist Jonathan Schechter warns, “Don’t be fooled by the deep purple berries and munch a sample. All parts of this plant are poisonous to mammals… Herbalists tend to agree that when properly prepared the very small tender spring shoots can be consumed–but if you make an error your reward can be as simple as cramping, vomiting and diarrhea or can be dangerous heart rhythms, coma and death.”

Despite the fact that pokeweed can be found throughout most of the Continental United States, the people who call the Appalachians and Dixie home are the folks who have really taken a liking to this plant – considering its leaves a delicacy.

Foodie Larry Rankin writes, “It is a poisonous weed, related to night shade, but if prepared for consumption correctly, it is actually considered a delicacy by many Southerners. In fact, in its cooked form, the pokeweed is so popular that many southern states hold yearly festivals in the early spring to commemorate it.”

According to Rankin, the cooked version of this weed is properly referred to as poke sallet, but I doubt that my granny would agree! The word sallet traces back to Middle English and refers to a mess of greens cooked until tender.

Though all parts of the plant are toxic and pose risks to human and mammals, the highest concentrations of poison is found in the rootstock, then in leaves and stems and then in the ripe fruit. The plant generally gets more toxic with maturity, with the exception of the berries (which have significant toxicity even while green).

Researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center found that “Children are most frequently poisoned by eating raw berries. Infants are especially sensitive and have died from eating only a few raw berries. Adults have been poisoned, sometimes fatally, by eating improperly prepared leaves and shoots, especially if part of the root is harvested with the shoot, and by mistaking the root for an edible tuber. Research with humans has also shown that common pokeweed can cause mutations (possibly leading to cancer) and birth defects. Since the juice of pokeweed can be absorbed through the skin, contact of plant parts with bare skin should be avoided.”

So how in the world did such a violent weed find its way onto my family’s mountain table? Who knows! Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures!

Turns out, pokeweed has been poisoning mountain folk for centuries – especially from ingestion of berries and roots that were mistaken for parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, or horseradish.

Still, Poke has persisted as a beloved springtime mountain food for generations.

According to old timers, the young leaves can be eaten prior to chambered pith formation but must be cooked – boiled three times in fresh water each time. It is also important that the purple skin is peeled away. Traditionally, poke leaves are with fatback and cooked some more to add flavor.

Appalachian Magazine strongly discourages its readers from preparing pokeweed unless they truly know how to do so and are confident in their ability and knowledge. No part of this article is intended to serve as a recipe or “how to” guide in preparing pokeweed but is offered merely as a cultural and historic documentation.

The bottom line is this: As tasty as it may be, at the end of the day, you are still eating a highly toxic plant!

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I’m 72 years old and have been eating poke sallet all my life. You pick it when it’s only about 2-3 inches high and only the leaves.. Very very good with eggs scrambled in it..

  2. As young kid growing up in south eastern Ky. i have eaten Poke salad many times i can remember going with me grandparents picking poke leaves and dandelion for salad . If i remember we also picked a plant call dock .

  3. Not very closely related to nightshade, not even in the same order. However, the same precautions should be taken when eating either.

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