Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

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Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

109 Comments »

  1. Earl Miracle said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

    I make pokeberry wine. But, I mix it with other fruit. My favorite is Pokeberry\pear wine. I slice up a five plastic five gallon bucket of ripe pears. Be sure and remove the peels. I then boil water and pour the hot boiling water over the pearsand let sit for four days. On the fifth day I remove the pears and run thru a juicer getting as much of the pear juice as possible. This usaully yeilds about three to four gallons. I then take two gallons of frozen poke berries and put them in a large pot. Then I take some of the pear juice and pour over the frozen poke berries and bring to a boil and boil until the poke berries bust open. I then strain thru a fine strainer all of beutiful purple juice back into the bucket of pear juice. It may take three boiling to use up all of the two gallon of berries. Then in a container I take all of the poke berrie pulp and seeds and cover it with nice pure well water. never use city water or treated water for wine. after one day I strain it thru a fine strainer and add the juice into the bucket with the pear\pokeberry juice. This very pale pulp and seeds can now be thrown away. Throw away whre you can watch it. The beetles will go nuts over this. Next take three camden tablets and crush and add to the mixture. Add a small amount of tartic acid, yeast nutrient and let set for another day or so to let the camden purify this mixture and dissapate. Then the final mixing stage. Remove enough of the mixture and put in a pan enough to dissolve eight pounds of sugar. Dissolve the sugar then mix it in the bucket. Make sure that the mixture is not too hot. It can be warm but not hot. heat will kill the yeast. add one package of Premium Cuvee yeast. Fit on a loosely fitting lid, cover with a cloth and let set in the bucket for about three days. After three days put into a five gallon carboloy and and finsh filling up to the bottom of the neck with pure well water. Install air lock then watch the beautiful colored liquid turn into wine. I suggest setting you carboloy in a plastic tote. This is in case you have a small erruption.. If this happens just remove the air lock clean it and re install it with a fresh water fill. I let mine set until there are no more bubbles coming from the airlock or a couple of months. Then remove the airlock and taste the wine. if it is too dry for your taste then pull all of the wine leaving the lees at the bottom of the carboloy. Just put it back into the plastic five gallon bucket Mix in more sugar until it tatste to suit your fancy or in my case my wife’s fancy. Empty out the lees from your carbobloy and rinse out with water, do not use soap to wash the carboloy. Re-rack the wine back into the carboloy. Re-install the air lock and fill with water. Usually the wine fermentation restarts. Leave in this state until there is no action whatsoever. Then you can pull and cork. I never get in a hurry to bottle any wine. It will age just fine in five gallons or a bottle For sure you do not want to start blowing corks. Sounds like a lot of trouble but its not. This will yeild you about wtenty four or twenty five bottles of beautiful good tasteing wine that has very healthy properties to it. I make five gallons a year and it is gone by the time it is time to make again.

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  9. D L Morrison said,

    April 28, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    My parents were from the Appalachians. We grew up eating fried poke stalks in early spring prepared like okra. We also ate the leaves by parboiling them once and cutting them up small, then we fried them the same as the stalk or made them into patties. I am cooking some today.

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