By Erinn Sweet
You may recognize pokeweed as that pesky plant that sprouts along chain link fences, under powerlines, in dense forest floors and open pastures. Pokeweed is recognized by its spear-shaped leaves, magenta stems and plump berries. Do not be fooled by the attractive colors; all parts of the plant are poisonous—especially the roots and seeds. However, its toxicity is fairly low when prepared properly. Though it grows in most states, it has been harvested for popular dishes in Appalachia for generations. Thus, for this edition of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s ongoing Foodways series, we bring you pokeweed (a.k.a. poke or pokeberry.)
This resilient weed typically sprouts in June and continues through November, meaning it can grow in all sorts of conditions—from extreme summer heat to frosty fall mornings. Most people would probably turn their nose up at the idea of eating a poisonous weed, but Appalachians have found ways to prepare the plant safely and deliciously. As we have discussed in other Appalachian Foodways blog posts, Appalachians have a history of foraging for food and turning their bounty into some of the most delicious meals. Poke sallet (a.k.a poke salad) is the most common dish made with poke. Young plants are harvested, boiled, drained and simmered with salt and bacon grease—similar to how collard greens are traditionally prepared. Cooking poke this way does not only provide flavor, but it also makes it safe for consumption.
Poke is native to the United States, and Indigenous peoples have been using pokeweed for food and medicinal purposes long before Europeans ever crossed the Atlantic. The name poke originates from the Indigenous word pocan. Poke has been used to treat a variety of illnesses such as common colds, anxiety, epilepsy, neurological disorders, cancer and HIV. In addition to food and medicinal uses, the plant’s berries and vibrant stems produce inks, dyes and paints. Check out this recipe for pokeberry ink: https://insteading.com/blog/diy-pokeberry-ink/
Beyond its practical uses, pokeweed is also known for its magical and spiritual properties. For those who practice spellwork, pokeweed can be used to break hexes, protect against evil spirits and return lost items to their owner. From an astrological perspective, this herb is thought to be ruled by Uranus.
Poke has even made its way into popular culture! Tony Joe White’s 1968 song “Polk Salad Annie” tells the story of fiery Louisiana woman who would “go out in the evenings and pick her a mess of it / Carry it home and cook it for supper.” Elvis Presley covered this song in 1970 and regularly performed it live.
I can recall the first time I learned about poke. My father took me out to my grandparents’ backyard where we looked for poke—a request made by Mamaw who wanted to cook up a mess of poke sallet. We walked along the fence line where my father explained the plant’s identifying features and emphasized that it should not be consumed until it had been properly cooked. We found some young sprouts growing tall and healthy and took them back to Mamaw’s kitchen where she washed and prepared them. Years later, when my Papaw’s health was failing, he asked my father to pick up some poke at the farmer’s market so he could indulge in one of his favorite side dishes. Sadly, Papaw’s health took a turn for the worst. A day or two after he passed, we went to their house to begin the difficult task of sorting through Papaw’s belongings. When cleaning out the refrigerator to make room for all the sympathy meals we were about to acquire, my father noticed the untouched bundle of poke he bought from the farmer’s market just days before—a tearful reminder of what our family had just lost.
I think about my Appalachian family every time I pass by the stalks growing up the distressed fence of an abandoned house during my neighborhood walks through the alleyways. What most would consider a pesky weed, I consider a reminder of where I come from. Its versatility speaks to the diverse populations that use the herb to feed, heal, craft and harm (if you are not careful!). Next time you stumble across pokeweed, will you take some home or leave it alone?
P.S. If you have any recipes, stories, tips and/or tricks, please share in the comments.
Erinn Sweet is the Communications Specialist for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.