Known by several similar names, poke, pokeweed, polk or polk sallat the plant was immortalized in the 1969 pop song by Tony Joe White about 'Polk Salad Annie' (“gator's got your granny”) who was so poor, that's all she had to eat. In fact, poke was actually eaten by rural folk and still is in some areas. It is a perennial plant that is native to most of the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico. It is a member of the genus Phytolacca which is found throughout most of the temperate world. Phytolacca americana produces impressive plants that can reach over ten feet tall in optimum conditions. The plants are toxic to humans and a number of other mammals, however birds adore the dark purple berries and are responsible for spreading the seeds far and wide.
Pokeweed uses in the past and cautions
Pokeweed was used for a number of purposes by the native peoples and the common name comes from an adaptation of the Algonquin word pocan or poughkone. The berries were used as a dye and to paint designs on their horses. The berries were also used to expel evil spirits from the body, since they are a powerful emetic causing vomiting and diarrhea, it was assumed that the evil spirits would be expelled as well. The leaves are edible when treated properly. Only the young leaves and stems are used, before the stems turn red. They are boiled through two changes of water to remove the toxicity. The young, green stems are eaten the same way and it is reported that they taste like asparagus. The older the plant is, the more toxic it becomes and the roots should never be consumed. People in the 19th Century used pokeweed as a treatment for mumps, arthritis and even for weight loss, however no scientific evidence points to any actual benefits. The berries were also made into a dark purple ink which contributed to another common name, inkberry. They used the berries to give cheap wine a richer color and they make a great natural dye for cloth.
Remove pokeweed early
Pokeweed is an impressive plant and can become a difficult weed to eradicate. I neglected to remove one for several seasons, just cutting the top off when it resprouted, which it did faithfully. When I finally decided to completely remove it, roots and all, it was a huge chore. The large taproot was the size of my arm and went down in the ground well over a foot before I managed to uproot the whole thing. It was a frustrating afternoon of hard work and looking back, it was a job that should have never had to happen. Pull those seedlings as soon as they pop up and save headaches and back aches later. While pokeberry will grow in just about any situation, it does prefer moist, semi shady conditions. My troublesome plant was on the hot, full-sun, dry side of a wall and that didn't seem to slow it down a bit, so it is quite adaptable. Watch for the seedlings wherever birds like to perch, overhead wires and fencerows are especially attractive. The seeds can lay dormant for years, so removing the plants before the purple berries appear is important if you do not wish for unwanted seedlings. The plants bloom with white flowers in mid summer with the green berries forming shortly after that and slowly ripening to a deep purple in late summer. However, in a woodland or prairie garden with other wildings, it does make sense to allow pokeweed to grow. It is a host plant of the giant leopard moth and many songbirds do enjoy the berries.
Pokeberry does make an attractive and impressive plant and there is even a commercial cultivar available and we have a couple of participating vendors offering it. It has variegated laves and is quite beautiful. Just remember that all parts of the plant are toxic and the berries attractive to small children and pets. Raccoons, possums and foxes are not affected by the toxins either, so you may see them in your garden eating the berries too. If you wish to grow it, plant in loamy soil in sun to dappled shade. Well-drained, but moist conditions are preferred, however it can survive almost anywhere and just about any soil type. Pokeweed does not withstand drought well and it isn't easy to transplant once established because of the large taproot. It makes an excellent addition to a dyer's garden giving pink, purple and red colors, depending on how the material is handled or what mordant is used. I consider it a weed and don't allow it to take root on my property. If I want to dye some yarn or fabric, there are plenty of fencerows with an abundance of plants, all I have to do is ask the property owner and they are always quite happy for me to take some.