Poke

poke - Phytolacca americana
poke plant grown on OurHerbFarm

Botanical: Phytolacca americana

Family: Phytolaccaceae

parts used: root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).
actions: alternative, anodyne, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, anti-tumor (cancer fighting), anti-viral, cathartic (bowel evacuation), emetic, immune stimulant, laxative, lymphatic, decongestant
common names: pokeweed, pokeroot, pokeberry, pokesalet, poke root, pocan bush, redweed, red ink plant, pigeon berry, garget, coakum, inkberry and American nightshade

It is an herbaceous perennial plant that can grow to 2-12 feet in height. The fleshy taproot is large, thick and coarse with 4-6 inches as a diameter. The stems are stout and erect which varies in color from green, red, pink or purple up to 3-7 feet high. The leaves are alternate, lanceolate to nearly ovate; 3½-20 inches long and 1½-5 inches wide. The flowers are symmetrical, green or white-pink which is about ¼-½-inch wide. The fruit is rounded, slightly flattened, purple-black; ¼- ½ inch wide and ½ inch (0.6 cm) in diameter. The seeds are black, round, flattened and 1/8 inches wide.

How to Use Poke

Cherokee

The Cherokees used the plant to treat boils, acne, swelling and arthritis. They also made use of the dye and ink produced by the poke berries.

Poke is surprisingly prolific and unlike many common medicinal herbs, Poke is a native of North America, and aren’t we blessed to have it! Phytolacca grows wild in fence rows, against out-buildings, under trees, anywhere that man can’t easily weed-wack. It may be found from lower Canada down to Florida and west to Texas/Missouri–roughly the Eastern half of the nation.

Culinary Uses for Poke

Pokeweed is one of the signature edible native plants of America, with a strong role in Native-American, and Southern cuisines. Caution is Key. Most look in the spring for young leaves and stems, before any of the red has grown into them. Scads of Poke are harvested by a new generation of foragers and always boiled in at least two changes of water, discarding the water afterwards. Southern style is to saute the greens with bacon drippings. Some also cook the young stems similar to asparagus, to which their flavor is compared, or cut them into rounds, like okra, coating them with cornmeal and frying them. Some just saute them in butter, with salt and pepper. They are sometimes used in making pickles. Just remember to blanch them in water first! Twice!

Green Deane calls Poke a Prime Potherb. He writes more on eating Pokeweed than I ever knew, so if you want information on how to eat it, check his info out.

Cosmetic and Other Uses for Poke

Civil War soldiers also used the dye to write home to loved ones.

Poke for Wellness

Pokeweed has a long history of medicinal use, being employed traditionally in the treatment of diseases related to a compromised immune system. The plant has an interesting chemistry.

Poke was first judiciously utilized and known in 19th century medicine as an emetic and cathartic. Those were the days when our medical physicians highly relied on the process of purging body toxins via both the mouth and anus as a routine method of achieving lost health. Such body evacuations have long gone out of fashion which is why I think Poke has been dismissed as a valuable medicinal herb. It was the Eclectics of the last century that saw in Poke (Phytolacca) something much more valuable than its purging properties. [1]

The most significant medical effect of the poke proteins is to stimulate production of blood cells, including both red blood cells (the ones that carry oxygen from your lungs to your body tissues) and white blood cells (the ones that fight infection). We would add a poke extract to our blood samples, and then wait a few hours for the blood cells to begin dividing, so that we could catch them in the middle of the act and take pictures. This extract is called “pokeweed mitogen” since it generates mitosis in blood cells.

Anyway, the point is that pokeweed mitogen, in small, sensible, amounts, stimulates human blood cells to reproduce, increasing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells. In too large amounts, it creates too many white blood cells (or too many red blood cells), which cause problems that can seem like Leukemia.

John King’s American Dispensatory [2] reviews the other virtues of Poke. It says Poke is an important therapeutic aid in skin conditions. It will kill scabies infestations, sooth inflamed skin, and aid in healing dermal abscesses/ulcerations/boils. Phytolacca is indicated in chronic eczema, psoriasis, varicose veins, syphilitic types of eruptions, fissures, and painful lymphatic enlargements. It can be employed both internally and externally for such conditions. King’s text further praises the usefulness of Poke in diseases of the mouth and throat: laryngitis, tracheitis, influenza, diphtheria, tonsillitis, stomatitis, follicular pharyngitis, and ordinary sore mouth. It will stimulate the mucous membranes of the mouth and promote glandular activity. Sore, irritated, inflamed throats have been cured by it. The Eclectics held Poke in the highest esteem in glandular conditions of the mammary.

It shines as a remedy in acute mastitis. It has further been shown of value in treating granular conjunctivitis and other eye inflammations. It holds relieve for certain rheumatic conditions. King describes the use of the root and leaves: “The root, roasted in hot ashes until soft, and then mashed and applied as a poultice, is unrivaled in felons (purulent infection) and tumors of various kinds. It discusses them rapidly, or if too far advanced, hastens their suppuration.” He goes on to tell that an infusion of the bruised leaves may be applied to indolent ulcers with the best of results. Phytolacca has had a long history as a cancer fighting herb. One of its name is Cancerroot.

The benefits of Poke Root as an immune stimulant and lymphatic decongestant is a more modern revelation. Simon Mills in his text, Principals and Practice of Phytotherapy, describes the immunological stimulating properties of Poke. He cites PWM (poke weed mitogen) as the factor which stimulates lymphocyte production and increases the number of blood plasma cells. Poke, also, contains LSF (lymphocyte stimulating factors) which induces lymphocytes to differentiate into lgM-secreting cells and multiply as such. Further, LSF causes polyclonal B-cells to differentiate into lgM-secreting cells. Lastly, there seems to be an antiviral protein present showing laboratory activity against many plant and animal viruses.

Using Poke Root for Brown Recluse Spider Bite

First apply activated charcoal or bentonite (or other) clay to the bite. Clean and boil pokeweed roots in water. (this is called a decoction) Let it cool. Strain. Soak gauze in the tea, and wrap the swollen area of the bite. This should help ease the pain. (this where the anodyne (pain relieving) effect of poke comes in!) Use the gauze wrap at night for a couple of weeks. You can refrigerate your left over tea and make more as needed. During the day, let it air (from the gauze) and use an antibiotic type salve on it.

Polk root and yellow dock root are both powerful herbs to aid in cleansing the blood and lymph, inciting and increasing the action of lymph glands throughout the entire body. Not surprisingly, both herbs are staples of many traditional herbal anticancer formulas.

Key Actions

  • lymph cleanser (and has a special affinity for red, inflamed mammary glands, testicles and throat)
  • detoxifies
  • diuretic
  • mild laxative
  • stimulates bile flow
  • tonic

To support wellness, look at the root. Poke root is safe for herbal use. Poke leaf is not. Eating poke leaves (without proper preparation) can cause gastroenteritis with intense vomiting and frothy diarrhea.

The root is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory, cathartic, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic and purgative. The dried root is used as an anodyne and anti-inflammatory. The root is taken internally in the treatment of auto-immune diseases (especially rheumatoid arthritis), tonsillitis, mumps, glandular fever and other complaints involving swollen glands, chronic catarrh, bronchitis etc. The fresh root is used as a poultice on bruises, rheumatic pains etc, whilst a wash made from the roots is applied to swellings and sprains. [4]

Safety:

  • To be used only under the supervision of an expert qualified in the appropriate use of this substance. Not to be used while pregnant. Not recommended for internal use. Not to be taken if you have severe liver or kidney disease. Do not apply to broken or abraded skin.

“In a January 17th 2014 interview with music journalist Ray Shasho, Tony Joe White explained the thought process behind the writing of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.” …”I heard “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio and I thought, man, how real, because I am Billie Joe, I know that life. I’ve been in the cotton fields. So I thought if I ever tried to write, I’m going to write about something I know about. At that time I was doing a lot of Elvis and John Lee Hooker onstage with my drummer. No original songs and I hadn’t really thought about it. But after I heard Bobbie Gentry I sat down and thought… well I know about Polk because I had ate a bunch of it and I knew about rainy nights because I spent a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, Georgia. So I was real lucky with my first tries to write something that was not only real and hit pretty close to the bone, but lasted that long. So it was kind of a guide for me then on through life to always try to write what I know about.”
– Tony Joe White

Resources:

  • http://racehorseherbal.com/pokeweed.htmlPokeweed
  • King’s American Dispensatory, 1898. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Kings American Dispensary. Accessed April 14, 2013.
  • Rebecca Hartman, Crabapple Herbs
    Iowa Cooperative Extension Service publication Pm-746 “POKEWEED”

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