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Pokeweed: Threat or Menace? (And did the Gators REALLY eat her Granny?)

Q. Back in September, Julie in nearby Hereford PA posed a question on the 'Next Door' site for our neighborhood (which is mostly about lost cats, car accidents and such). She posted a photo of Pokeweed, a poisonous Native American plant with distinctively flat purple berries and asked 'does anyone know what this is?'

As of today, there are 79 responses! Sheri, also in Hereford immediately replied: "Pokeweed; its toxic". Short, correct and to the point. Then things got weird. Jim in Green Lane called it 'poke berry' and said "it CAN be toxic". That was enough for me, so I chimed in to simply say "Pokeweed. Do NOT eat!" Then Ben in Quakertown shook the hornet's nest by claiming: "Actually poke has a lot of health benefits if eaten right". That got my Irish up; you can't say things like this about a highly toxic plant! I replied that 'only the young leaves in Spring can be eaten after a repeated regimen of boiling and rinsing--as in the song "Poke Salad Annie" ("the gators ate your granny..."), adding that "the berries ARE poisonous!"

Ben returned with a monkey wrench: {quote}: "I've never personally tried it or looked into it until briefly just now. I've heard from multiple people over the years that parts can be eaten. Upon brief research, yes it seems it's mostly the leaves (boiled) that can be eaten, but it is also said that the berries can be eaten (possibly prepared a certain a way?) in very little amounts to help with certain Illnesses. I have a few friends who are very into herbalist stuff and have said they've eaten it or mentioned it's health benefits. That's all I know!"

This is why I warn people to stick to reputable websites and not irresponsible chatter. Always stick with the safest advice; never lead people closer to the river Styx. Then Ben pulls around again, claiming that his younger sister ate a few when they were kids and the hospital said not to bother coming in. There's a pricey lawsuit brewing...

John in Upper Saucon jumped to my defense with: "Criminy! If Mike McGrath says don't eat it, don't eat it!" followed by blush-worthy compliments. Thank you, John!

Then Stella from Springfield PA sent the scariest note: "I'm quite surprised at these responses because I have one of these plants and have been treating it as ELDERBERRY for years, making a syrup and using it for myself and my grand-kids. Yes, they look similar but here are the differences: https://www.spiceography.com/elderberry-vs-pokeberry/. Some of the research on pokeberry shows that it is not as toxic as people believe and is even used to make jelly. I will continue to research this topic, but I guess to be on the safe side, I'll just buy my Elderberry Syrup from now on."

Boom. The pokeweed berries in the cited article's photo looked nothing like the American pokeweed (P. Americana) that grows wild all over the area (oh; and neither plant looks anything like elderberries). Although simply called 'pokeweed' in the article, a little research showed it to be a different variety whose common name is "Indian pokeweed" (P. acinaca), which is native to India and The Far East, and which can now be found in Europe. There is also a "Mexican pokeweed", but little seems to be known about these other species. There are around 30 different varieties worldwide and all are presumed to be toxic to mammals, but not birds, who gleefully spread the seeds. It turns out that there are many recorded fatalities among grazing farm animals, but few reports of human death. However humans who eat the berries, stems, and/or roots of the plant may WISH they were dead.

The National Poison Control Center puts it succintly: "Pokeberries are found in grape-like clusters on tall perennials with purple-red stems. Eating several berries can cause pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Adults have eaten the roots, mistaking them for medicinal plants. Serious gastrointestinal problems have occurred, including bloody vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and low blood pressure." Charming.

Now, what CAN be eaten (carefully) is 'poke salad' or 'poke sallet'. In regions of the American South and other rural areas, gathering poke salad in the Spring is an annual, but somewhat dangerous, event. The gatherers (like the made-famous-by-song Poke Salad Annie) clip off the youngest leaves, take them home and boil and rinse them three times to remove most of the toxins. This is mixed with other Spring greens, including dandelion leaves, purslane, wild onion and wild garlic and cooked down in a pot with water and eaten as a soup, with the left-over liquid (called pot liquor) especially prized.

But let me make it clear: These 'spring tonics' are poverty foods that supply essential vitamins, minerals and naturally occurring phytochemicals to people who have little to no food to eat after winter. Before you decide to try anything like this, take a class on foraging from a reputable source. Do NOT trust unaffiliated sources. As they say about wild mushrooms: "There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters."

And if you're picking poke down South, be sure to be aware of your surroundings, lest gators eat YOU like they ate Granny.



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