Pokeweed

Pokeweed berries have been used to make ink and dye, but eating them can be fatal.

If some of y’all ever been down South too much

I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this

So that you’ll understand what I’m talkin’ about

Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods

And in the fields looks something like a turnip green

And everybody calls it polk salad, polk salad

Used to know a girl lived down there

And she’d go out in the evenings and pick her a mess of it

Carry it home and cook it for supper

’Cause that’s about all they had to eat, but they did all right.

 

According to singer/songwriter Tony Joe White, who also penned Rainy Night in Georgia, Polk Salad Annie “made alligators look tame.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise if you know much about her only food source. Or if you thought Annie’s middle name means you can eat Pokeweed raw, like a salad.

You can’t.

Mature Pokeweed is a very distinctive-looking, poisonous perennial that grows throughout the Lake Martin area. Although associated with the rural South, Pokeweed actually grows wild in most U.S. states and eastern Canada. 

It’s a large herb that can reach more than 12 feet tall and has dark purple berries and a white, fleshy taproot. 

Flowers are white to light green with five sepals, no petals and about 10 stamens per blossom. They grow on long pink racemes (flower clusters with each flower attached to a central stem) and produce berries with six to a dozen seeds.

Pokeweed has smooth, partially hollow stems that can be green to deep purple. Pokeweed leaves are tapered at both ends with green upper surfaces and lighter green undersides.

This is a plant that grows best in edge habitats: forest openings, roadsides, field edges, under powerline clearcuts and in damp thickets. It prefers partial sun and moist soils.

Phytolacca Americana is known by a whole bunch of common names, including Pokeweed, Great Pokeweed, Poke Weed, Poke, Virginia Poke, Poke Salad, Poke Sallat, Red Ink Plant, Pokeberry and Pigeonberry.

But speaking of names, we need a little more background on Polk Salad Annie before we can go on.

White, who died last October at age 75, recorded the song in 1968 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Polk Salad Annie climbed all the way to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Elvis Presley covered the tune and made it a regular part of his 1970s performances. He also included the song on several albums in the early ’70s. Presley’s version went to the No. 2 spot on the U.K. record charts.

So if you lived in the English-speaking world in the ’60s and ’70s you probably know about Polk Salad Annie, and if you grew up in the Southeast, there’s a fair to middlin’ chance you have eaten this delicious wild green.

But you may not know about the unfortunate mistakes White made when he penned the song.

First, he used the word “Polk,” instead of Poke. The two words sound a lot alike, so that’s probably not the most grievous error in song writing.

Second, he used the word “Salad,” which commonly means vegetables eaten raw. This is a grievous error and, in fact, many people have been poisoned by eating uncooked Pokeweed … but of course there’s no way of knowing if the musical Annie’s name had anything to do with people’s wrong-headed dining choices.

Just to be clear: you should never put Pokeweed in a salad. Harvested and cooked incorrectly, this plant could make you ill or could even kill you.

Both the Pokeweed berries and tuber-like roots are especially poisonous. All parts of this plant can make people sick, but many birds gobble Pokeweed berries like candy with no ill effects.

However, properly cooked Pokeweed is one of the best-tasting wild foods around, and it’s been eaten in the Southeastern U.S. for centuries. It was even canned and sold in U.S. grocery stores until 2000.

If you’d like to make a mess of Pokeweed greens, there are two simple rules.

No. 1: Harvest Pokeweed leaves (leaves are the only edible part of the plant) by cutting the young leaves in the spring when they are less than 6 inches tall and have no purple in their stems. Do not dig up or touch the root, which is very toxic.

No. 2: Boil young Poke leaves once; then, move them to a new pot of fresh boiling water and do it again. Green Deane, a famous Florida forager who writes the Eat The Weeds blog, said he boils Pokeweed for 1 minute in the first pot; then, 15 minutes in the second. He said if you were worried about toxicity, it wouldn’t hurt the greens to boil them three times.

Deane says Pokeweed is “perhaps the most delicious pot herb of all – one that makes you look forward to the next season.”

And if you’re worried about eating a plant that is toxic before it’s cooked, both cashews and tapioca share that poison-when-raw characteristic.

A little more about names: “Poke” comes from the native American Algonquain word “pakon,” which means a plant used for dying or staining. Pokeweed berries have been used to make reddish-purple ink and to dye all kinds of objects – including clothing, feathers for arrow shafts, body paint for people and horses – for centuries. Pokeweed berry ink is purple but turns brown with age. Many Civil War letters and journals were written in Pokeberry ink.

Native Americans used Pokeweed as a medicine to treat a range of diseases from rheumatism to cancer.

Modern scientists are investigating Pokeweed extracts to treat cancer, HIV and AIDS, and a dye derived from Pokeweed berries has been found to double the energy-gathering effectiveness of solar cells.

 

Information for this article came from The U.S. Forest Service, Eat The Weeds, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Georgiawildlife.com, LyricFind and Wikipedia.