Pokeberry

The berries of the pokeberry are beginning to ripen in Frederick County. The common pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) is a large herbaceous perennial plant found throughout much of the East from Maine to Florida and westward into Texas and Mexico.

The pokeberry is often found in disturbed, open sites with rich moist soils. Other species of pokeberry exist in northern Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. Pokeberry, or pokeweed as is also known, comes from the Indian word ―pokan‖ which means plant used to make dyes; their berries can be used to make yellow, brown and purple dyes.

Much of the pokeberry plant is poisonous to mammals, especially the roots and the seeds found in the berries. Birds have the ability to consume the berries and have the seed pass through their body without harming them, and pokeberry is a favorite late summer food source for many species of birds.

Young succulent green colored pokeberry stalks and leaves were boiled numerous times to yield poke sallet; it was canned and sold commercially up until the late 1990’s in the South. Today some still make poke sallet or use the berries for poke wine, but because so much of this plant is poisonous, you better know how to prepare these dishes before attempting to use the plant.

Chemicals derived from the pokeberry plant are being used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis. President James Polk used the outline of the pokeberry plant in his campaign insignia.

Nature Notes for 9/11/2011