Poke ain’t no joke.

Delicious and nutritious when harvested and prepared correctly, yet toxic and deadly when handled carelessly, pokeweed represents both the delight and fear often associated with foraging wild edibles.

Poke berriesMost people know about the edibility of pokeweed.  It ranks up there in common herblore knowledge with the dandelion and sassafras for its familiarity as an edible plant.  Called by many different names (poke, poke salad, poke sallit, inkberry, pigeon berry, and skoke), most people can easily recognize the mature plant with its grape-like clusters of dark purple berries full of magenta-colored juice and tiny little seeds and its emerald egg-shaped leaves that grow alternately on the stem.

Poke grew as tall as small trees all along the fence of my back yard where I lived as a child in the Ozarks.  I remember the first time I crushed one of the berries between my fingers and discovered the stain that the juices left behind.  Immediately, my young mind realized that I could use pokeberries for primitive ink.  It didn’t take me long to find a turkey feather to carve into a quill and begin scrawling in the beautiful pink ink.

My grandmother knew of poke’s virtues and dangers and explained them as she cooked up “a mess of poke salad” for my family when we moved in to our little house in the hills.  (NOTE: the “salad” or “sallit” in the name does not mean that you can eat poke raw.) She explained to me the way to harvest the plant, noting what to look for and what to avoid.  In a nutshell, the young leaves and stalks (up to 6 or 8 inches in height) make the safest greens for your plate.  Avoid plants after they begin to develop flowers, and either peel or avoid stalks that have purple outer skin.  When boiled in two or three changes of water to remove any toxins, the leaves and stalks taste delightful with a flavor reminiscent of asparagus.

The stalks, mature leaves, flowers, berries and root of the pokeweed contain compounds that have some pretty scary effects on the human body.  Drugs.com lists the symptom of pokeweed poisoning to include “severe stomach cramping, nausea with persistent diarrhea and vomiting, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, hypotension, severe convulsions, and death”.[1]  They also note that “severe poisonings have been [sic] reported in adults who ate mature pokeweed leaves”[1] so make certain to get only the youngest leaves from the plants before the flowers form.

But please don’t let the dangers of pokeweed scare you away from this delicious plant.  The properly harvested and prepared leaves and shoots not only taste wonderful, they contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals–even after a preparation that involves so much boiling.  A 100g serving of poke shoots contains calcium (631mg), phosphorus (524mg), of iron (20.2mg), vitamin A (62mg), Thiamine (0.95mg),  Riboflavin (3.93mg), Niacin (14.3mg), and a ton of vitamin C (1619mg).[2]

Treat this plant with respect, and it will treat you to a fine meal.

~ written in e-prime ~
(except for the title)

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19 responses to this post.

  1. how wonderfully informative and interesting!!

    i LOVE, once again, imagining a young rixie…this time with feather and berries in hand. wow.

    and also reading about your grandmother and her poke salad–love it.

    maybe we need to change our tap tap tap to poke poke poke. :)

    Reply

  2. hey asshole, you better not be poke, poke, pokin’ my wife, understand? though really, i’m somewhat nervous having read that, for just 15 minutes ago, i ate an entire poke plant that was purple and peeling AND 26 inches tall…
    i’ll see you later.

    Reply

  3. um, that was NOT ME. doug sabotaged me, obviously.
    gross, DOUG–that was NOT what i meant. u r 2 much.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Rix on 05/16/2007 at 7:34 pm

    Ha! You kids.

    So, I think we’ll just leave “tap tap tap” as it is. I’ll leave the poking up to Doug–who is probably shitting himself to death at the moment.

    Reply

  5. Good to know. I just thought it was toxic with no edible or medicinal qualities. I have some growing in my backyard as we speak. I’ll have to give it a closer look.

    Reply

  6. […] poking – It took them to Poke ain’t no joke, I guess?  I bet they had something else in mind.  By the way, Doug, I blame that one on […]

    Reply

  7. Posted by Jake R on 09/18/2008 at 5:04 pm

    my 3 year old ate just 2 of the berries, whats the the effects of two.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Rix on 09/18/2008 at 5:41 pm

    Jake R

    It’s really hard to say. I have heard of people eating cooked berries in pies before, but I would imagine that a lot of the toxins which give the plant its purple color reside in the berries.

    I would play it safe and call the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) or your child’s physician to find out more.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Mauryh on 02/05/2009 at 11:29 am

    Poke should only be eaten in the spring, as a young plant & it needs to be COOKED (boiled). Don’t eat it if there are flowers or red on the plant. Also, Poke SALAD is a misnomer & dangerously misleading as it implies the plant can be eaten raw. The correct term is sallit, which just means pot herb. It is not necessary to change the cooking water which throws away vitamins and wastes water.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Evolouie on 05/07/2009 at 6:53 am

    Hey all,
    Just looking for some recipes and came here to read about poke.
    Well I will just say that I have eaten poke for many years and want to dispell those crazy internet rumors about the toxic nature of poke weed.
    The mature plant is toxic, very much so.
    However the small shoots, no bigger than the hand can be eaten safely and raw. There is no need to ruin the plant and all its nutritional value by boiling it.
    My gaandma and my mother have always used the no bigger than you hand method of collecting pokeweed and I am still here to tell you that it works.
    And I have a big mess of poke in the fridge right now.
    Nothing like poke and eggs in the morning, or at lunch, or for that matter anytime of day.

    Reply

    • Posted by Rix on 05/07/2009 at 9:25 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Evolouie. I have heard of folks eating it without boiling, but I had never heard the “no bigger than the hand” rule to go along with those anecdotes. So, thanks for filling in that piece of the puzzle for me.

      Do you (or does anyone) know if the “no bigger than your hand” rule still applies to renascent plants? For example, I cut a small NBTYH plant and eat it. The plant will regrow from the same roots. Is the regrowth as safe to eat raw following the NBTYH rule as a new plant?

      Reply

  11. […] several spankings. FINALLY found it… it wasn't SUMAC that got us sore-tailed, but POKE BERRY. https://wilderix.wordpress.com/2007/0…-aint-no-joke/. What the heck can I do with pokeweed? I mean, aside from getting severe stomach cramps, nausea […]

    Reply

  12. […] are natural and nutritious but we don't eat them since we're used to buying our food in stores. Poke salad and dandelion greens come to mind. __________________ Have you heard about McDonald's' new Obama […]

    Reply

  13. Posted by onezoo on 06/03/2010 at 10:55 am

    I started to eat pokeweed this spring. I got braver over time and harvested plants that are bigger that are succulent and about 10 inches or so.

    I always peels of the skin (strangely a lot of them are red earlier in spring while very young, depends on where they are found – sunny spot mostly). I think the redish color has to do with exposure to the sun.

    It is so delicious, I almost want to eat it everyday.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Robin Conkel-hAnnan on 04/17/2012 at 8:48 pm

    I am 67 years old and have been eating poke all of my life.. It’s my favorite ‘leafy green’ ..

    When you pour off the water you loose nutrients.. All year I harvest, cook and eat poke but only the smallest leaves and most tender stems.. The stems are good fried.. Leaves and stems can be used any way you would spinach or asparagus.. Stems can also be diced and added to soups, stews etc..

    My Apache step-father said it is safe as long as all the purple is peeled off..

    I think this is the summer I try the berries, well cooked..

    Reply

    • Posted by Rix on 04/18/2012 at 7:52 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Robin. But, for someone who hasn’t been eating poke all of their life, to eat it without multiple boilings would have some serious effects. Sure, you pour off nutrients when you change the water. You also pour off toxins. And you still end up with so much nutrition with what you have left. For anyone starting out getting to know the plant, I recommend that you play it safe.

      Reply

  15. Posted by Sonja Oglesby Hull on 06/18/2013 at 4:46 pm

    I am better after a night of vomiting. I ate a leaf, raw, from a mature poke plant. Just one leaf. Now I am hoping the jaundice leaves my eyes soon.
    Please tell me I am not left with permanent liver damage!

    Reply

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I am not qualified to tell you about the state of your liver. I hope you have seen a medical professional.

      Reply

  16. Posted by Kay on 09/16/2013 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve harvested and eaten polk greens most all my life. I’ve eaten young tender leaves raw in lettuce salads, in soups, boiled down and then fried in a bit of bacon grease. It’s young tender raw leaves are also good on sandwiches. Today (Mid-September), I harvested some young sprout leaves and cut it up raw with my cilantro and put it in homemade salsa– not that I could taste it in the salsa, but I added it for the added nutritional value. Yum yum good stuff!

    Reply

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