Updated: Oct 26, 2020
I know of no plant so equally feared as it is loved as Phytolacca americana, American Poke. I’m not particularly fond of the question “what five herbs could you not do without?” but, Poke would certainly be a top contender.
A darling of Appalachian culture, it is often referred to as “poke sallet” (commonly misspelled “poke salad”) in reference to the traditional dish prepared with young Poke leaves and shoots, boiled, drained, then cooked with salt and bacon grease. It was, and for many still is, as much a staple of the Appalachian diet as collards or hoe cakes. Poke has been a prominent food source and medicinal to indigenous Americans since long before the arrival of even the earliest Appalachian settlers. Its namesake derives from the Algonquian “pocan,” a term given to plants producing red dye. It has assumed many names since then, many of which have referenced the plant’s vibrant color, including Red Weed, Red Berry, and Inkberry. Many know that the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written in Pokeberry ink, but unfortunately much of the rich ethnobotanical history of Poke has been forgotten as it has become shrouded in misinformation.
Poke’s value as a superfood and botanical medicine has been overshadowed by its potential toxicity and by its aggressive dispersal. Even to those who value them as an important component to their ecosystem as a native species, they are usually only discussed as a food source for birds because it’s berries are “not poisonous to birds.” Conversely, they are notorious for being “lethally toxic” to humans. On the contrary, Phytolacca berries are no more poisonous to humans as to birds. Only the seeds of the berries are toxic. The flesh, or mesocarp, of the berries, are completely non-toxic, and are high in antioxidants, particularly the beta-cyanin that gives it its vibrant pink hue. When birds consume the berries they spit out the toxic seeds in pellets. Humans can safely consume the berries in precisely the same way - the berries are completely safe consumed raw and in large quantities, as long as no seeds are swallowed.
“There is a great difference of opinion on this subject. While some maintain that birds do not eat fruits of this kind, others hold that they eat only the surrounding pulp, as of the berries of Taxus, which is perfectly harmless, whereas the seed is very poisonous ; others, again, have maintained that they do not eat sufficient to be poisonous. The real fact is, I believe, that none of these statements are true, but that actually the birds eat largely of these berries, both pulp and seed, and that they very shortly afterwards eject the seeds and skins by the mouth, thus a voiding any poisonous action. The first experience I had of this habit was in finding in September last an immense number of thrushes and misselthrushes feeding on the berries of Pyrus aucttparia in Sutton Coldfield Parle At least a square mile of ground had every patch of grass covered with the ejected seeds and skins of these berries, all the pulp having disappeared, while the colour of the skins was as bright and fresh as when they were swallowed ; showing that they could not have passed through the alimentary canal. Each of the pellets was flat and round, and about the size of a sixpence.” - John Lowe, NATURE, 1898
The severity of the toxicity of the plant has been overblown in modern times as well. To date, there have only been two confirmed cases of lethal poisoning due to Phytolacca. In one instance, a five year old child was given a very large quantity of poke berries which were crushed and mixed with sugar. The addition of sugar should be noted here, as Poke berries by themselves are not all that pleasant tasting. The other was resultant from the well-meaning doctor in the mid 19th century, who treated a woman he had found “in destitute condition” for Poke poisoning. His treatment included bloodletting and other dangerous but common medical practices. In all other recorded cases, poisoning has resulted in complete recovery with no lasting ill effects within a few days of overconsumption. The symptoms are, however, alarming and may require medical care during recovery, so care still must be taken to prepare and dose the plant properly. Profuse sweating, emesis, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness, are common symptoms of toxicity. Foamy pink diarrhea is as well, and can be attributed to the pink betacyanins and high saponin content. These saponins are no longer believed to be cardiotoxic, and no cardiotoxic components have been isolated.
Because of its toxicity, Phytolacca falls into the “low-dose botanical” category of medicinals. Toxicity does exist on a spectrum- the same spectrum on which edibility exists, mind you- and low-dose botanicals are those which have a medicinal function but their safe use is dependent on a specific dosage range. For Phytolacca, this means that the average adult can tolerate somewhere between 1-10 drops of fresh root tincture, or 1-4 dried seed-containing berries swallowed whole (without chewing or crushing the seeds), and that consuming more than this amount has the potential to produce uncomfortable side-effects. Consulting a clinical herbalist before consuming larger doses, for continual use longer than a few weeks, or for use during breastfeeding is advised. It should not be used during pregnancy. External contact with the fresh plant can occasionally cause irritation.
While it is wise to be cautious, it is a shame that so many are too afraid to take even a single drop dose of Poke root tincture. For many it is a last resort remedy, and much of the literature on its therapeutic applications certainly place it into the category of heroic medicine and in many cases is profoundly effective for conditions otherwise difficult to treat, though we as modern herbalists certainly should not contain it to that category. It is a potent remedy for the lymphatic system. Being an indigenous plant of Turtle Island, our modern western herbal knowledge and applications of Phytolacca come exclusively from aboriginal Americans. It appears that all parts of the Poke plant were used in a vast array of applications for many. Unfortunately, as is often the case with ethnobotanical reports, the rich contextual understanding and application of the plant is highly under-transcribed, and in its place we have the standard colonized, allopathic interpretation. Using what we know about its indigenous uses and records of traditional and modern use, in combination with traditional energetics, and scientific biochemical findings, we can apply Phytolacca medicinally with great effectiveness. It is well known for its antitumoral effects in cancer cases, particularly breast cancer. In vitro and animal studies confirm its cytotoxic
effects on carcinoma, as do anecdotal clinical accounts, however no human clinical trials have been conducted. Phytolacca has a long history as a remedy for mammary tissue. Powdered root and crushed berries applied to sore or swollen breasts can reduce pain, help resolve mastitis, and bring down swelling. It is specific for hard lymphatic swelling, infection, and rheumatism. Poke really shines in any condition where there is infection and/or stagnancy of fluids resulting in pain. Its very cold and very dry action is indicated in the presentation of inflamed, red tissue, fever, as well as sharp, shooting neuralgic pains.
“Physiologically, phytolacca acts upon the skin, the glandular structures, especially those of the buccal cavity, throat, sexual system, and very markedly upon the mammary glands. It further acts upon the fibrous and serous tissues, and mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tracts. The drug is principally eliminated by the kidneys. Applied to the skin, either in the form of juice, strong decoction, or poultice of the root, it produces an erythematous, sometimes pustular, eruption.” - Kings American Dispensatory 1898
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and so consuming prepared Poke leaf as a spring tonic throughout the season is a fantastic (and delicious) way to help keep our lymphatic system healthy. There is no better way to remember and celebrating the foods of our ancestors and of the people who lived on this land before us than to consume them and steward the plants that provide those foods. Poke is considered by most to be “a weed,” so the ecological risk to this plant is low, but loss of cultural knowledge and valuable medicine is already occurring. As Lisa Ganora stated in her immensely informative thesis on Phytolacca, "The beautiful and powerful complexity of Pokeweed's medicine, on the chemical level and beyond, will continue to unfold for us as long as we are able to approach this ancient healing herb with an open and discerning mind." For me, Poke will always be near and dear to my heart. It was nursing a horse with severe Lymphangitis that got me into botanical medicine in the first place. Phytolacca is powerful medicine. As with any potentially toxic plants, it is at risk for being discarded as “too dangerous” to be useful and lost to history, but once you begin interacting with this plant, it is not one to easily let you forget it.