[TN-Bird] pokeweed do's and don'ts

  • From: jreese5@xxxxxxx
  • To: tn-bird@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2003 17:01:19 -0500

Carol Reese
Ornamental Horticulture Specialist -Western District
University of Tennessee Extension Service
605 Airways Blvd.
Jackson TN 38301
731 425 4721 email  jreese5@xxxxxxx

I thought I'd share an old column I wrote on pokeweed..

Controversial plant has many attributes, some dangerous, some

Sorry if I get the song "Poke Salad Annie" stuck in your head all day...

It's a plant of contradictions - beautiful but weedy; edible, yet listed as
poisonous. It can damage your heart, or paralyze your lungs, but has been
shown to have anti-viral and anti-cancer properties. People even argue over
the name. Is it pokeweed, poke salad, poke sallet, American nightshade, or
inkberry? Over a century ago, when James Polk was running for president,
some supporters wore twigs of it on their lapels and called in Polk weed.

Looking out my window over my computer, I can see several stalks of
pokeweed growing along the fence. They form a backdrop for my bird feeders,
growing tall enough to tower over my head, though they die back to the
roots each winter. The big dead stalks stand all winter, which makes going
afield hunting for "poke salat" easy in early spring, when new shoots are
jutting up at their base. These shoots are cut at ground level, when they
are about four to eight inches tall for cooking in traditional "spring
greens" recipes. There are several variations on the dish, but all of them
call first for boiling the shoots several minutes and pouring off the water
before cooking again. This is supposed to remove the poisonous compounds.

On the Internet, I ran across a publication form the University of Alabama
Extension Srvice describing how to gather and prepare pokeweed. Yet, an
article by a food scienteist from Auburn University stated that no one
should eat this poisonous plant when there are so many other safe greens
available. I know a lot of people who have eaten it all their lives, yet
I've never tried it.

I would worry about having the plant in my yard if I had small children
that might be tempted to eat the beautiful purple-black berries that ripen
in late summer and fall. It's hard to resist trying them myself. I do read
that it would require large amounts to cause adverse reactions but I remind
myself of an all-night bout of nausea when I once tried an unknown wild
fruit and refrain. The birds eat them eagerly without any harmful effects,
and that's why I allow them to multiply along the fencerow. I've seen
bluebirds, robins, cardinals, thrashers, orioles, woodpeckers, summer
tanagers and yellow-breasted chats feasting on pokeweed berries, that is,
what they could steal from the vengeful mockingbird who thinks he owns this
fruitful booty.

I also use this plant in flower arrangements. The branches are very
graceful and when the fruit is ripe, the stems are an astonishing fuchsia
pink, contrasting vividly with the black shiny berries.  The berries hang
in graceful racemes, reminiscent of the shape of wisteria blooms. Since the
toxins can be transferred from the sap through your skin, wash your hands
thoroughly after handling. Pregnant women are advised not to handle them at

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