A Song About Poke Berries

A reader of this blog emailed to ask whether pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was poisonous.

Well, as is so often the case, the answer is “yes and no.” As Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, noted, “Everything is poison, there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”

Which is a nice way of saying that it depends on how much pokeweed you are intending to eat, when you are picking it, what part you are eating, and how you intend to prepare it.

Birds routinely eat the berries without harm as their gut cannot corrode the shell of the seed which contains phytolaccatoxin (a fancy latin word which means “pokeweed toxins”).

Cows and horses also eat some pokeweed, generally without harm if they do not overdo it. That said, it is generally recommended that pokeberry be chopped out of fields where horses and cows are grazing.

Raccoon and fox will eat pokeberries, and do not seem to be any worse for the wear, though humans are warned off of the berries, as the seeds inside contain the toxins.

Warning off, of course, is not the same as not eating; there are scores of country jam and pie recipes for pokeberries which simply say “remove seeds.” Seems simple enough.

Younger leaves are less toxic than older leaves, and it was once common to eat them. The recommended recipe is to boil the leaves, drain the water, boil them again, drain them again, and then boil a third time before serving. The triple boiling draws out and drains off the toxins. The result is a bit like cooked spinach, and is called “Poke Salette,” salette being an old English term for cooked greens. The leaves are supposed to be quite good if picked young, but no, I have never had it. I dislike all cooked greens.

So how toxic is pokeweed? As you might have gathered, not very.

Symptoms of pokeweed poisoning include sweating, a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, a severely upset stomach, and possibly vomiting and bloody diarrhea. I can find no reported human deaths, but no doubt they have occurred somewhere sometime. Basically, no one is eating that much of this stuff who does not know how to cook it. Perhaps that will change after the apocalypse.

Pokeweed is sometimes called “ink berry” and in colonial times up until the Civil War it was sometime used for that purpose. In fact the Declaration of Independence is said to be written in an ink made from a mixture of iron gall and pokeberry juice.

In 1969, Tony Joe White wrote and recorded a song by the name of Poke Salad Annie, which was promptly picked up by Elvis Presley who sometimes played it in concert.

The version below features Tony Joe White and the great Johnny Cash. And how about them sideburns?!!


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