|Phytolacca americana; this stalk contains ripe, purple berries as well as immature, green ones.|
Phytolacca americana; this stalk contains ripe, purple berries as well as immature, green ones.
About 35, including:
For the Hawaiian fish salad, see Poke (food).
The pokeweeds, also known as poke, pokebush, pokeberry, pokeroot, polk salad, polk sallet, inkberry or ombú, comprise the genus Phytolacca, perennial plants native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand. Pokeweed contains phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, which are poisonous to mammals. However, the berries are eaten by birds, which are not affected by the toxin because the small seeds with incredibly hard outer shells remain intact in the digestive system and are eliminated whole.
Pokeweeds are herbs growing from 1 to 10 ft. tall. They have single alternate leaves, pointed at the end, with crinkled edges. The stems are often pink or red. The flowers are greenish-white, in long clusters at the ends of the stems. They develop into dark purple berries.
Young pokeweed leaves can be boiled three times to reduce the toxin, discarding the water after each boiling. The result is known as poke salit, or Poke salad, and is occasionally available commercially. Many authorities advise against eating pokeweed even after thrice boiling, as traces of the toxin may still remain. For many decades, Poke salad has been a staple of southern U.S. cuisine, despite campaigns by doctors who believed pokeweed remained toxic even after being boiled. The lingering cultural significance of Poke salad can be seen in the 1969 hit song "Polk Salad Annie" by written and performed by Tony Joe White, famously covered by Elvis Presley and the El Orbits. Pokeberry juice is added to other juices for jelly by those who believe it can relieve the pain of arthritis.
Pokeweed is used as a homeopathic remedy to treat many ailments. It can be applied topically or taken internally. Topical treatments have been used for acne and other ailments. Internal treatments include tonsilitis, swollen glands and weight loss. Grated pokeroot was used by Native Americans as a poultice to treat inflamations and rashes of the breast.
Pokeweed berries yield a red ink or dye, which was once used by Native Americans to decorate their horses. The Declaration of Independence of the United States was written in fermented pokeberry juice (hence the common name 'inkberry'). Many letters written home during the Civil War were written in pokeberry ink; the writing in these surviving letters appears brown. The red juice has also been used to symbolize blood, as in the anti-slavery protest of Benjamin Lay. A beautiful rich brown dye can be made by soaking fabrics in fermenting berries in a hollowed-out pumpkin.
Toxic Principle Saponins, believed to be the primary toxic constituents, are present in the berry juice and other parts. Other toxic constituents have also been identified including the alkaloid phytolaccine (in small amounts) and the alkaloid phytolaccotoxin, as well as a glycoprotein. If used as food, the water in which they are boiled must be thrown away.
- In humans:
The eating of nonfatal quantities of poke, perhaps of the shoots, may cause retching or vomiting after two hours or more. These signs may be followed by dyspnea, perspiration, spasms, severe purging, prostration, tremors, watery diarrhea (often bloody) and, sometimes, convulsions. If a fatal quantity is eaten, perhaps including roots, the above signs are followed by paralysis of the respiratory organs and other narcotic effects, culminating in the death of the poisoned person.
- In horses:
Colic, diarrhea, respiratory failure.
- In swine:
Unsteadiness, inability to rise, wretching. Jerking movements of the legs. Subnormal temperature.
- In cattle:
Same general signs plus a decrease in milk production.