Pokeweed: Prime Potherb

by Green Deane

in Alcohol, Greens/Pot Herb, Medicinal, Miscellaneous, Plants, Toxic to Pets/livestock, Vegetable

Ripe for picking young poke weed. Photo by Green Deane

Can Be Deadly But Oh So Delicious: Poke weed

Poke weed will challenge your commitment to foraging.

It is not the most commonly eaten food from a poisonous source. Tapioca or cashews would probably take that prize. But poke weed’s in the running. If prepared incorrectly or carelessly it can make you quite ill, or worse, put a ‘k’ in front of ill as in kill you.  But when picked and prepared properly, as millions have done over the centuries, it is perhaps the most delicious pot herb of all, one that makes you look forward to next season.

Phytolacca americana (fy-toe-LAK-ah  am-er-i-KAY-na) is native to the eastern United States. Americana means of America. Phytolacca is an international construct combining phyton (Greek for plant) and Lac (French for a dark red pigment.)  The word “poke” comes from the Virginia Algonquian (Indian) word “pakon” or “pucone” first recorded in 1708. Pakon refers to a plant used for dye or staining, and indeed a red coloring from the poke weed’s berries has been used as a dye for centuries. Indians used the juice to color feathers, arrow shafts, garments, even their horses. Berry juice was also used at one time to color wine, but that practice has been discontinued. In a modern twist, red dye from poke berries doubles the efficiency of certain solar cells.

Ripe poke berries, do not eat

While coloring foods with poke berry juice has been banned, because it is reportedly poisonous, Dr. Julia Morton says on page 51 of her “Wild Plants for Survival In South Florida” 1982 edition,  “The strained juice of ripe fruits may be safely used for coloring foods.” During her lifetime, Professor Morton was the most authoritative source in Florida on toxic plants and her works still the main references. In theory the juice could be made into jelly. While the berries are the least poisonous part of the plant, never eat the seeds or the root. Accidental poisoning have happened by people getting a little root with the shoot. And never eat a mature poke weed. What’s mature? For safety, I would consider any poke weed over 7 inches mature and off limits. And, or, any poke weed with deep red stems no matter how short it is.

Canning poke weed ceased in 2000

Poke weed grew a good reputation centuries ago despite its dangerous side because it’s one of the first edible greens in spring, at a time when folks have been living on non-greens for several winter months. Many attempts were made to move the weed into the mainstream vegetable market — as it is in parts of Europe —  but it just never took off in North America. However, the demand for it was enough to keep two companies canning it up into the 1990’s. That southern tradition ended in the spring of 2000.  In April that year the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, canned its last batch of poke sallet. The reason why they stopped canning poke weed was there were not enough people interested in picking it for them. So, if you want poke weed you really do have to pick it yourself or order it through Wild Pantry.Com.

Toxic poke weed seeds and a quarter

A third alternative I’ve heard of which I haven’t tried because I live in Florida — where houses don’t have basements — is dig up a poke weed root and bury it in a sand box in a lightless area of your basement. In the spring it will send out white shoots which some say only need to be boiled once. While that may be theoretically possible, it would take a lot of roots to get enough shoots for even one meal. You’re better off harvesting it or collecting the seeds and growing your own. More on that in a moment.

When I go collecting poke weed, I take a ruler with me. It’s called my hand. From the tip of my middle finger to my wrist is about six inches. If the shoot is six inches or under, into the pot it will go, taller I leave it be. The second rule is pick nothing with red stems but that’s not so hard and fast because even two-inch shoots can sometimes be pink to red. And when I gather it I don’t pull it up, I cut it to avoid the possibility of getting any root. And do not handle raw poke weed if you have any cuts or abrasion on your hands.  It has mitogens which I will explain later.

The top picture of young poke weed is the appropriate size range. While I boil them twice. First time one minute. Then I change the water and boil for 15 minutes. That said, I know a southerner who not only picks red-stemmed shoots but boils them only once. That’s too brave for me but as of this writing she’s 70 and her husband 85 and they’ve been doing that every spring since they were kids in Kentucky. Merritt Fernald in Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1958 edition) writes young shoots need only to be boiled once. He also says they make great pickles.

Acres of young poke weed at new housing development

I like the 1/15 method because it accommodates large quantities of poke weed. You can boil them for a minute and then freeze. Mark the package that it has to be boil 15 minutes after thawing. The 1/15 also helps with cooking large amounts of poke weed. Use two pots of boiling water: One pot should be the right size for cooking your poke weed and the other should be much larger. The larger pot is your reservoir of boiling water. When both pots are at a boil, drop the poke weed into the smaller pot with ample water and boil them for one minute. Throw away this first water then refill the cooking pot with fresh boiling water from the large pot and boil for a minimum of 15 minutes and enjoy. I have tried this and it seems to works well. I’m still here. If you want to feel safer about it boil them twice in one minute baths and then boil 15 minutes. (I know how you feel. Long ago I used to cook poke weed in boiling water three times, 20 minutes each. Then I dropped down to two 30 minute boils, then two 20 minute boils. I heard of the 1/1/15 method and used it successfully. Then inadvertently I did 1/15. Been doing that ever since. Then again, I’m not a detail person so that one minute is usually longer, so is the 15. )

Poke weed ink, photo by CuriousGoods.co

A few folks also peel the stalks fry them like okra. Some blanch them first, others do not. Seedless berries reportedly can be made into pies but before I do that I’d like to meet someone alive who has done that, eaten said, and is still among us. Read don’t do it because it was supposedly done. It would also take a fine mesh to separate the seeds from the berries, but not impossible. Also, if you are thinking about raising poke weed from seeds, they are resilient. The best germination comes after fermenting the berries then soaking the dried seeds in sulfuric acid for five minutes then washing thoroughly. That probably replicates conditions in a bird’s gut.  I tried that this last year and it worked very well with a full row of poke weed in my garden.

I like poke weed shoots just fine boiled then dressed up with salt, pepper and butter, or olive oil. Best guess: Boil it at least twice for insurance if not three times for assurance. I’ve come to prefer the one-fifteen method particularly for young poke. Older poke might need more boiling.  Some day, when you are an experienced poke picker, you can make up your own rules. Nutritionally, poke weed is a powerhouse: A half cup of the greens provides 35 calories (10 from fat), no cholesterol, three grams dietary fiber, and 90% of your daily need for vitamin A, 60% of vitamin C, 8% calcium, and 6% of iron. Poke weed has 8,700 IU’s of vitamin A per 100g serving.

Poke weed root is very toxic

Incidentally, you will hear poke weed called “poke sallet” which sounds like “salad.” That “sallet” and “salad” sound the same today has been the cause of a few poisonings because people did not cook the poke weed before eating it. Never eat poke weed raw.  NEVER. Always cook it. I know of someone who accidentally ate raw poke weed leaves and was wretchedly ill. Some web sites say “Sallet” is an old English word meaning “cooked greens” but research does not bear that out. “Sallet herbs” were eaten raw and “pot herbs” cooked. “Poke sallet” is just a time-corrupted use of the term. Sometimes “sallet” is spelt “salet” but that’s not only incorrect but a “salet” is a helmet from a few hundred years ago.

Doctors — and here I will admit my severe bias against them when it comes to food and nutrition issues — think the plant should be eradicated. This is the same group that told us transfats were good for us, and high fructose corn syrup. Not a good track record. There’s some evidence that compounds in poke weed are antiviral and it has potential against AIDS. More so, poke weed proteins have shown fantastic clinical results in the treatment of childhood leukemia. A study published in the Journal of Natural Products 5 Jan 2008 shows one saponin might have a positive effect on ovarian cancer. Not bad for a plant doctors want eliminated. However, to be balanced, there is evidence poke weed constituents — mitogens — have the potential to cause cell mutations. That is why you don’t handle it if you have cuts on your hands. Mitogens can stimulate the immune system and also cause cancer. That’s why we boil it. A precaution: Those pregnant should not eat it or handle it.  That’s a lot of warnings, but it has also been eaten by millions for centuries.

Three historical notes: James Polk was a dark-horse candidate for president in the 1840’s. In one of the first PR gimmicks, his supporters wore poke leaves on their lapels. He became the 11th president of the United States. That’s Poke Power. And when the Constitution was written Tom Jefferson wrote it with ink made from poke berries on hemp paper… still legible after all these years. And during the US Civil  War many a letter was written home with a bird feather and poke berry juice. These letters, too, are extant for us to read because an herb called poke weed was valued not eradicated.

To make ink remember those ripe berries you brought home to rot for the seeds. You crush the berries, strain out the seeds, and let the rest ferment for a couple of weeks.  There is natural yeast on the berries or you can add a little wine or bread yeast. Then strain the liquid, once or twice depending on the thickness. You now have ink worthy of a constitution. You can mix fresh, filtered juice with vinegar to make a purple ink but it will fade. Fermenting turns the ink brown but sets it.

Cherokee mother and child

Lastly, I am doubtful about the presumed history of poke weed consumption. Poke weed certainly has been eaten for a few hundred years and that adds up to a lot of people. But I’m not sure about its use before the Europeans arrived in North America, that is, how the Native Americans used poke weed.

Consider: The Alabama Indians referred to Europeans as “those who eat poke weed.” That sounds as if the Alabama Indians did not. In fact, of the dozens of tribes we only know of four that used poke weed as a food, and those uses seem to break down into pre- and post metal pots. Also consider that boiling was a difficult task before the introduction of metal pots, particularly for a green that has far less nutrition than say a rat. I’ve got a suspicion that poke weed was medicinal (worth the difficulty of boiling) but not a food until it became easy to boil poke weed in changes of water in metal pots. In their different uses you can read pre- and post-metal pot use.

The Cherokee crushed the berries and sour grapes together, strained, mixed that with cornmeal and sugar to make a beverage. Leaves were gathered into a bundle and dried for future use. Those two uses do not require cooking. Crushed berries were used to add color to canned fruit. Young shoots, leaves and stems were parboiled, rinsed, and cooked alone or mixed with other greens and eggs. Peeled stalks cut lengthwise, parboiled, dipped in egg, rolled in cornmeal, fried like fish. Those require cooking. The Iroquopis, Malecite and Mohegans also ate poke but how was not recorded.  That’s not a lot of ethnobotanical evidence that native were eating a lot of poke weed long before Europe discovered America. I personally know two people who swallow one berry whole (no chewing) to treat arthritis. Beyound personal testimony I have no idea if it works or not.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Pokeweed

IDENTIFICATION: Phytolacca americana: (See “Telling The Difference” below) Poke weed is rugged but not handsome. It’s four to ten feet tall, stout with reddish stems, leaves four to 10 inches long. The plant often has a scraggly look. It’s flowers can be green, white or pink on a stalk six to eight inches long.  The berries are globular, purple black, flattened on top and bottom. The root is so toxic if you handle it do so with gloves.

TIME OF YEAR: Blossoms primarily in spring but can blossom all year until interrupted by frost or winter.

ENVIRONMENT: Poke weeds are opportunists, disturbed land often produces huge amounts, but likes rich, moist soil.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Never eat poke weed shoots uncooked. They can make you very sick. Never get any part of the root in with your greens. That can kill you. Boil short, young shoots at least twice, changing the water both times. Many writer recommend boiling them three times, which is acceptable, too. It does not change the flavor though drain your cooked greens well, they absorb a lot of water.  Poke berries, minus the seeds, have been mixed with grapes, sugar and cornmeal and fermented.


Foxfire II said hill people believed a home-made antidote for eaten raw poke weed was drinking lots of vinegar and eating a pound of lard.

Telling the difference

Inkweed (Phytolacca octandra) is very similar to American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Venezuelan pokeweed (Phytolacca rivinoides). These species can be distinguished by the following differences:

•    inkweed (Phytolacca octandra) flowers are borne on very short stalks (i.e. pedicels) only 2-3 mm long and usually have 7-8 stamens. Their ‘petals’ (i.e. tepals or perianth segments) turn red and persist on the developing fruit. The mature fruit are relatively small (4-6 mm across) and usually have eight slight lobes (i.e. they usually contain eight seeds).

•    American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) flowers are borne on relatively long stalks (i.e. pedicels) 5-10 mm long and usually have 10-11 stamens. Their ‘petals’ (i.e. tepals or perianth segments) turn red and persist on the developing fruit. The mature fruit are relatively large (5-11 mm across) and have ten or eleven slight lobes (i.e. they contain ten or eleven seeds).

•    Venezuelan pokeweed (Phytolacca rivinoides) flowers are borne on relatively long stalks (i.e. pedicels) 7-12 mm long and have 9-14 stamens. Their ‘petals’ (i.e. tepals or perianth segments) fall off as the fruit begin to mature. The mature fruit are relatively small (5-6 mm across) and have 12-16 slight lobes (i.e. they contain 12-16 seeds).



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{ 116 comments… read them below or add one }

catherine October 1, 2015 at 12:55

Have these weeds on our fence line. One fell down near the ground because of all the rain. We have a new puppy that likes to chew maybe eat leaves on trees. Also berries
Cut it down immediately for fear it will poison her.
Do you know of animals dying from this weed?


Green Deane October 1, 2015 at 20:03

It is bad for mammals to eat poke weed raw.


Connie September 27, 2015 at 20:49

If there are berries still on the plant and they are dry can you use them? Or is it best to pick berries when ripe and dry them how?
Thank you. Heard it is good for neuropathy.


Grace September 26, 2015 at 18:21



Green Deane September 26, 2015 at 19:55

No problem, just wash it off.


Stacey August 25, 2015 at 18:15

Hey Dean,
My family enjoyed your Sarasota walkabout a year ago! Do you have any idea if the Inkweed or Venezuelan Pokeweed are edible or toxic? Do both grow in the States? (I assume so but wanted to check!) Are the plants distinguishable when they’re not fruiting?



Green Deane August 30, 2015 at 06:11

Boiled Phytolacca rivinoides’ leaves and shoots are edible.


Bruce August 10, 2015 at 09:13

Thank you Green Deane. I like the way you write, authoritative, entertaining and concise.
Question… when is the right time to collect seeds? Berries go from green to black and fall off fairly quick. I assume black is the best seed.
I want to plant a garden bed of poke but I got bummed when I read your suggestion of treating the seeds before planting with fermentation and sulfuric acid. WHAT? Do you know poke seeds won’t sprout without this bird gut emulation? Did you ever try planting in the fall? Although I doubt Florida’s winter would have the same husk busting effect Illinois winters have.
BTW, seems a lot of people who eat mature poke have ate poke many years, I wonder if you build up a tolerance?


Green Deane August 10, 2015 at 11:11

Clearly poke seeds will sprout without humans soaking them in acid. But it dramatically increases the chance the seed will sprout. As for developing an immunity or resistance to the seeds as medicine I do not know. Medicine or herbal applications are not my area of expertise. Those folks I know who take said for arthritis have done so for many years. They pick and dry the ripe, black berries.


PipeMike June 22, 2015 at 02:56

Wow…….. Just – WOW!

I’m reading all this stuff – and Wow! I can’t get my arms around the multitude of opinions. I’m really trying, though! i want to make it – but – then again – I don’t. But – I want to make it. Maybe not!!

I’ve been talking to several people here, around town (because my particular job allows me to meet many, many, many people who are from this area. I’ve asked questions. I’ve gotten a myriad of responses. I’ve used things like dandelion, wild violet, purse-lane, etc – forever. Poke simply happens to be new to me. Holy Crimeny, have I seen different responses!

I have a lot of this poke weed growing around the perimeter of my 6 acre property, only because the main portion can be mowed down, and I’d never see it…… “Tastes better than spinach” – “You’ll die!” OMG!

I love the internet for information gathering – but hate it, at the same time – because there are so many ‘stories’.

Sheesh! This guy has to continually state that he is giving his own opinion, and knows the potential liability that someone – ANYONE – could quite potentially, possibly, maybe – sue him if he says one word that nay be in error. I feel for him. I really do.

BTW – McDonald’s coffee is Hot! It’s coffee, for cryin’ out loud!


Tim June 7, 2015 at 20:16

when I was about25 or so, I decided to make
Poke berry waffles, and I ate them. Didn’t have any
Problems. Just threw some berries in the waffle
Mix and cooked them. Made the waffles kind of purple
As I recall. A long time ago.


Gerge May 22, 2015 at 01:29

Just had a debate with my brother on this subject today! I deep fried a large salad bowl of poke stalks, small green shoots and large red ones. Split the large red ones in half before frying. No boiling whatsoever. He told me I had to boil them three times in fresh water. Never heard of such blarney!….. Until I read these posts! lol. I guess he read some of this stuff. If I wake up dead in the morning I guess he was right! lol. Til then I’ll keep eatin em. He too has grown up eating these” poisonous ” invasive plants. I am also confused by how the same plant can be a cancer causer and yet a cancer curer!? Hmmmmm. Me thinks more research is in order before making such uneducated guesses. If it were a cure for cancer, I do know that the medical community would do everything in their power to prove otherwise. Wouldn’t want to damage their trillion dollar industry ya know. For those who have gotten sick after eating poke, I would be curious as to what else is in their diets. Such as medicines or just poor diet habits. The thing about eating something that detoxifies the body is that it reacts strongly to foreign substances, toxins, pathogens, and damaging free radicals. This is more commonly known as the herxheimer effect, which happens when your body overwhelms and destroys harmful pathogens in the body. In my opinion, trust your body. Start eating small amount and work your way up. If you feel nauseous back off a lil. Just remember, a purified body is a healthy one.


Green Deane May 22, 2015 at 07:24

There may be a difference in the toxicity between shoots from seeds and shoots from old roots. Poke was more a medicine for Native Americans than a food. Many people report their family cooks poke in ways other than what I recommend. I err on the side of caution and to avoid being sued. As no one is probably going to sue you for how you cook and eat poke have at it.


Mike May 15, 2015 at 01:33

Thanks alot for the great blog! And wow this thread is very informative and I love the controversy around eating this plant!

I just tried eating poke for the first time today! I was very careful to use small shoots about 6 or 7 inches, making sure there was no bit of root attached. I noticed where I was picking one bunch of them must have been growing from a huge taproot. There were about seven shoots coming out! The big ones had longer thicker stems than any others in the area. Also they were covered by more leaf litter and were effectively blanched like how people grow celery. Other shoots in the area were much thinner and clearly were new growth from seeds as there was no skeleton of last years plant next to them. The shoots from seed were more green in color. The shoots from the taproot were more reddish but still paler-pink than many pictures I’ve seen. Ultimately I was scared to eat them because they were quite pinkish-red.

I rinsed and cut up some of my pickings that had the least pink-red coloration since some comments say to avoid the red stems. I blanched for 2 minutes, drained, then added fresh boiling water and simmered for another 15. Then I added them to some frying slivered bacon and sauteed for five minutes. Flavor-wise the greens were much more exciting. They shriveled up and got concentrated and had a deep, nutty lovely flavor. The stalks were comparatively watery and underseasoned. I wonder if salting the water would affect the leaching out of poisons? The stalks are very much like asparagus. Next time I’m thinking I’ll just harvest a bunch of leaves from shoots around 8 inches tall.

Bottom line is I’m still standing thankfully! Happy to add another plant to my repertoire. My other favorites this spring have been redbud, sweet clover, daylily and greenbrier. Happy weeding!

PS careful with the daylilies I ate too many raw leaves (5 or 6 plants) and felt very comatosed. They’re said to be psychedelic but I felt more sedate and nauseous.


Nancy May 3, 2015 at 16:57

Have been cooking poke leaves for years. I pull the large vein from the middle of the leaf and give the leaves a good rinse. While doing that, I fry bits of bacon, add minced garlic, leaves and cook just till wilted. Other that a mild laxative, have had no “problems”. :)


Xyara April 21, 2015 at 11:15

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on whether there’s a difference in shoots/leaves from previous years’ taproots versus first year shoots from seed? The overwintered plants of course produce leaves of harvestable size earlier in the year, but if there’s a significant difference in chemical makeup, I can wait. Thanks so much for the informative article!


Green Deane April 21, 2015 at 16:15

There is some thinking in the foraging/herbalism community that there might be a difference than say a shoot from a seed vs a shoot from an old root. This might be why sometimes only one boiling works.


roxann slaughter March 18, 2015 at 12:34

been eating poke for years with other wild greens ,dandelions, carpenters square, nettle greens, best greens u can eat there is more just cant think of them right now. if anybody know hit me up on my e- mail


Don November 14, 2014 at 16:30

Without a doubt I am a very lucky 72 year old as I have been eating poke sallet for most of those 72 years and from what I have just read I should be dead. The idea of only harvesting leaves from a plant not to exceed 6-8 inches really set me back. I have always harvested the leaves from the first ones off the ground to as high as I can reach. I do strip the large vein out of the larger leaves which themselves might be 8 to 10 inches long. I do this while they are soaking in the sink. To prepare the sallet to cook, I put it into a pan half filled with boiling water. Put in all the pan will hold. Boil for about 10 minutes, drain and rinse real good. Heat about three tablespoons of granola oil in a large skillet and add a couple tablespoons of chopped onions. When the onions start to clear I put in the drained poke sallet. When the sallet gets good and hot put in two eggs and salt and pepper to suit your taste. Be sure to stir the eggs into the sallet. Let it cook for 4 or 5 minutes and get ready for a feast.
While the sallet has been cooking the cornbread
has been in the oven, it is time to get it out. You now have a a meal fit for a king. Put a pile of fried taders (potatoes) next it the poke sallet and enjoy.


Green Deane November 17, 2014 at 18:49

As you can’t be sued and I can I err on the side of caution.


charolette jackson November 5, 2014 at 09:14

i noticed several people talking about cutting the stalk and frying like okra. i had a older gentleman tell me this and said once you eat that you will not eat okra again. i have been afraid to try it cause i was always told not to use anything but the leaves. my question is what size should the stalk be. i know one person on here said thumb size but i would like to know what you think. i totally trust what you say. thankyou so much for all the info you have!


Green Deane December 1, 2014 at 18:24

I have heard of people doing that but I have never seen anyone do it. Until I do, and until I do, I can’t recommend it.


charolette jackson December 9, 2014 at 08:48



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