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!

135 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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  13. Teresa said,

    September 20, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    Can anyone tell me how to dry the berries.

  14. cj said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    I’ve found if you put them on some dry brown paper like those bags people use for leaves in direct sun mid august you can dry them out in a week or so. You just have to make sure your using clean paper and that its really hot. If you use contaminated dirty paper your probably going to end up with mold where the paper touches the berries. At night you may want to take them inside and spread them out on newspaper or a tray on top the fridge or in a dehydrator. Repeat this process each day until your berries are dry. Good luck!

    Grow Your Future Before Someone Else Does!

  15. Dezerae said,

    October 24, 2016 @ 10:46 pm

    I have reoccurring breast mastitis and I’m looking to use pokeweed but not sure if a salve, oil or tincture is best. I would like the most effective. I was curious on if I would be able to apply the salve and consume a drop or two of tincture. Can you please give me some insight? Thanks

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  30. Pedro Meio-Dia said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

    I made a tincture of poke root and today is the third day of using it, 5 drops today. I will keep 5 drops/day another two days, then I will pause to continue later again. I made the tincture with something folks are not used to, if not never heard of when it comes to tincture making. I searched and found out that for any tincture making this may replace as alternative for alcohol as the solvent, with even better results. It’s H2O2 35% food grade. I add 1 drop of it to every 20 drops (1ml) of water that I added. Then I add one 5th part ml of the poke root powder to the h2o2 solution. Stear it and within 2 days was done. But will strain after the 12th day. The drops I take are from the solution at it’s rest, to avoid poke root powder in the drops. I MAKE HERE NO MEDICAL CLAIMS. God bless and good health to you.

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  32. Howard L Shirk said,

    July 19, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    My father-in-law worked in the DeQueen, Arkansas creosote pole treating operation for many years. As a result, he developed malignant skin cancer that could be removed only by surgery. The cancer began spreading rapidly and was all over his head. He decided instead to try the poke berry poultice remedy that a friend recommended. He simply crushed the berries and applied the juice to the cancerous lesions. Within a short time, every lesion healed, and he was completely cancer-free before he died of old age. The only remaining indicator of the cancer was that both of his ears had rotted off before he was able to apply the remedy.

    My daughter had Hodgkins cancer of the thymus and lungs and was told that it likely would reappear later as skin cancer. Last summer a lesion appeared on her face and was spreading. She decided to apply poke berry juice to the lesion before her scheduled doctor’s appointment and saw the cancer heal within a few days. It is still gone with no recurrences.

    I have had a colloid cyst between the lobes of my brain since I was a kid and was unaware of it until I had an attack of Transient Global Amnesia in 2007 that sent me to the ER for an MRI. The doctor said that I was OK but that the MRI had exposed a that cyst between my brain lobes. I then realized that was what had been causing my migraine headaches and heavy mucous expulsion for many years, as well as problems with memory retention (It often impedes receptor transfer.). I began swallowing three dried poke berries a day for about 5 months. My headaches have stopped completely, and my mucous drainage is all but gone.

    I also developed a cancerous lesion on my right temple that seemed to be the result of a blow to the side of my head that I received many years ago when a stick that I was attempting to pick up from a pile of brush suddenly released and hit me in the temple. I developed a blood clot in my right eye, as a result, along with an internal cataract that has left me legally blind in my right eye. My wife noticed that the lingering discoloration I had received on my temple had become a dark skin spot and was becoming reddened and sensitive to the touch after having had the spot for many years. After re-engaging the poke berry swallowing that I had discontinued due to running out of berries, I have seen that spot disappear along with the sensitivity.

    The resulting “problems” that have developed that seems to be related to the cyst being dissolved is that the decreased pressure against my cranium makes me a bit disoriented at times. I have slight weak spells at times that do not seem to be physical in nature but seem to originate in brain activity that makes me slow down. I have not experienced any improvement in motor function nor memory retention, but I suspect that long years of brain cell inactivity probably has made any major improvement in those cells unlikely.

    Until my father-in-law applied the poke remedy and my daughter confirmed it, I was not a great believer in holistic medicine, but I am now more open to the possibilities, and for very good reason.

    I am 72 years old now.

  33. Howard L Shirk said,

    July 19, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    “The doctor said that I was OK but that the MRI had exposed a that cyst between my brain lobes.”
    Bad proofreading. It should have read …had exposed that cyst…. Sorry.

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  35. What To Do With Poke Berries - the Witchen Kitchen Beginner Herbal said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 9:31 am

    […] Rebecca Hartman has a wonderful write-up on poke.  She classifies it as one of the alteratives, and mentions it as a traditional Appalachian herbal remedy, also used by Tommie Bass. I am anxious to get myself a copy of Mountain Medicine: The Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass.  It’s next on my list of herbals to buy! […]

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