Hunting for Pokeweed: a forager's adventures in Provincetown

Ever heard of pokeweed? No? How about poke salad, poke sallit, cancer-root, cancer jalap, inkberry, pigeon berry, pocan, poke root, pokeberry, reujin d ours, sekerciboyaci, skoke, yoshu-yama-gobo, or yyamilin? These are all names for the same plant: Phytolacca americana.

The abundance of names alone indicates that the perennial plant was once easily identifiable to foragers all over the world. As a native to North and South America, East Asia, and New Zealand, it is found along woodland margins, in damp clearings of rich soil, and along roadsides. A stout, erect stalk can tower by the end of the growing season a good ten feet over the earth, widening into smooth branching shoots weighed down with deep purple berries.

The wild plant has almost as many uses as it does names. In the spring, the young shoots can be boiled for a dish similar to asparagus in looks and spinach in taste. The large, fleshy root can be sliced and dried for use as an alternative medicine (touted as an anti-inflammatory, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic, it has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years to treat swollen glands, bronchitis, and other immune system deficiency diseases). Stock from boiled root can be used as a soap substitute, as it is rich in saponin (a natural detergent). The berries, while poisonous raw, produce a beautiful red ink and dye.

If you've been around long enough to hear the song "Poke Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White (covered by Elvis) you might've tasted it. Today, however, the making of poke salad falls into the realm of lost culinary arts. Many authorities advise—over-cautiously, in my opinion—against consumption of any part of the plant (as the roots, berries, and older shoots and leaves contain a strong poison). As a result, any would-be forager without a grandmother to hand down a poke salad recipe is likely to pass on the spring treat.

When asked, my grandmothers' response was not encouraging. "Isn't it a green thing that grows in the spring?" she asked. "My sister used to love it, but I never had anything to do with it."

Thus ended my experience with the plant until several days ago, when a friend arrived to work with a carefully wrapped "surprise." After explaining that it was the tender young shoot of a poke stalk, she agreed take me foraging the next day. When we crouched armed with knives and paper bags at the hunting grounds (the exact location of which I have been forbidden to disclose), we managed to cut a few pounds of the stuff within minutes.

Below is the recipe I used to prepare my first poke salad. Now that I've got a gathering spot, I'll happily welcome more.


Serves 4

Boil 1 pound short, tender poke stalks with leaves (stalks are edible until they reach about 9 inches in height or begin to turn purple; at that point beware of poisoning) for 3-5 minutes. Drain water, refill pot, and boil again. Discard water; boil again if stalks are on the larger side, as boiling reduces toxicity.

In a large pan, fry 6-8 slices of bacon. When done, remove bacon and add poke stalks to sizzling fat. Sauté for 2-3 minutes or until hot through. Serve hot with bacon and cornbread.


Anonymous said...

As a true pokeweed fanatic, I am delighted with your commentary. I have forwarded this to my friends who think I am the only pokeweed compulsive in the world.
Hunting for pokeweed was a family ritual. With paper bags and knife and long pants we followed our mother each spring through tangled brush to be the first to spot poke. Finding a patch of poke made one the hero of the day.
It has been an unbroken and successful search, spanning several decades. This spring I found new spot, along the roadside on the outskirts of NY City. Lee Rust

Elspeth said...

Good to hear, Lee! We were a bit nervous with all the warnings when we dug in for the first time, but after no ill affects, I believe I have become a fanatic as well! Happy hunting.

Unknown said...

you have got to freaking kidding me.
poke weed is the worst thing in the world. it grows insanely fast. kills off all other plants. the tap root is huge. and it has destroyed my yard.

Mrhycannon said...

Pick the smallest leaves and stem any time of year and peel off any purple.. My Apache stepdad said the poison is in purple parts.. I grew up eating poke..

Forty years ago I quit pouring off the water.. DOA says we loose nutrients by not using water we boil food in..

Thirty years ago I started frying stems(very good) and foraging year round..

This year I'll try berries, well cooked.. Where I live I'm known as the "crazy cat lady who eats weeds".. I harvest a lot of wild food..

Michelle said...

We have always fried the Pokeweed stalks. Even when they were big and purple. I have never had any ill effects.

To Mrhycannon, did you peel the stalks before frying them? Even though I have eaten them before, all of these warnings are making me nervous LOL.

Thanx, Michelle

Mrhycannon said...

Yes Michelle, I peel all of the purple/red from the stalks however I don't peel the green.. I understand your nervous.. Being raised to think only the very young shots are safe, it was hard for me to consider eating the whole plant.. That's why I've waited this long to try the berries..

We've missed a lot of good eating because of food prejudice..

necienay said...

My family harvests pokeweed, we only eat the leaves and make sure it hasn't seeded yet, we coarsely chop them, cover with egg and flour then fry. We've never ever boiled this plant. No ones got ill from it.

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