The lowly pokeweed finally gains some respect

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112672497325991.jpg’, ‘Photo by Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Pokeweed: A weed to some, a useful plant to others.’);

One of the traditions of spring I remember while growing up in north Texas years ago was a trip outside of the city to the countryside with my mother and grandmother to gather poke greens, the leaves of the plant commonly known as pokeweed or poke. Usually a bushel basket of the young, succulent leaves could be picked without difficulty in about an hour once a stand of the common plant was located.

The greens would be turned over to my grandmother’s long-time cook and housekeeper for the preparation of poke salad. I would watch as the cook carefully inspected the greens for any bit of root that might be attached, because, as she was quick to point out, the root of pokeweed was deadly poisonous. To make her point, she told me about her uncle, who died a horrible death after he had mistaken a poke root for that of a horseradish. She also related how pigs on her father’s farm had been fatally poisoned when they rooted out and devoured pokeweed roots.

After satisfying herself that the poke leaves were free of any root material, the cook boiled them for several minutes. The water was discarded, and they were boiled again for about 10 minutes. When eaten, the poke “salad” tested like asparagus and was delicious!

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) is a common herbaceous perennial and is native to North America. Though most in Illinois consider it to be a weed, it is a source of food in some areas of the country. Its habitat ranges from the New England states south to Florida and as far west as Nebraska. Poke is frequently found in open woods and occurs in waste places, along fencerows, and farmsteads and pastures if the soil is moist and rich. It is a tall plant, being up to 9 feet in height, with the stems being green or purple in color. The berries are inky-juiced, shiny, and purple in color when mature. For generations, youngsters have squeezed poke berries through a cloth to get a disappearing organic ink.

The plant grows each year from a very large taproot, which may be several inches in diameter, and, as mentioned, resembles the root of horseradish. The exact nature of the toxins occurring in the root is unknown, but several organic compounds known as saponins have been isolated and identified. These compounds react with cholesterol in the membranes surrounding red blood cells causing them to burst. The jury is still out on whether ingesting poke berries is dangerous, but in some parts of the South, pokeberry pie is eaten regularly with no apparent ill effects.

In certain rural areas, the root is used to force grow poke salad during the winter months. My grandmother recounted that as a girl, growing up in the hills of eastern Tennessee, her family would dig poke roots after the first frost. The roots would be planted in boxes of rich loam and placed in the root cellar. With frequent watering, the roots would sprout enough shoots to supply the family with fresh poke salad all winter long.

Extracts of the pokeweed were used by Indians and early settlers for a variety of illnesses. But occasional poisoning resulting from ingesting root material detracted from its popularity and frequent use

Now, however, the common pokeweed has gained international recognition. In an issue of the prestigious British scientific journal Nature some years ago, it was announced that a substance derived from the pokeweed plant interferes with the way viruses causing AIDS, herpes simplex, polio, and influenza reproduce inside living cells. The substance is called PAP, which stands for Pokeweed Anti-viral Protein. In the laboratory, PAP was found to be more effective than AZT, the drug widely used in the treatment of AIDS, because it attacks the virus in both its active and dormant stages. Not being up to date on the latest treatment for viral diseases, I do not know if PAP is presently used to treat them.

In the past, pokeweed has been generally considered to be an undesirable plant; a weed and a nuisance to be eradicated whenever encountered. This attitude may change now that it has the potential of supplying us with a “magic bullet” that may alleviate human suffering. I wonder how many other “magic bullets” are yet to be found in supposedly nuisance weeds.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Sept. 14-20, 2005, issue

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