Poke – Nutritious Food, or Deadly Poison?

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Poke, it’s the sure sign that winter is over and hope is beginning again.  It’s usually the first harvestable green of spring, which makes it especially appreciated at our house.  Phytolacca americana, (poke, poke sallet, poke salad, poke berry, poke root, or pokeweed) has been an American staple as long as people who wrote things down have lived here.  It is an abundant, free, and nutritious food.  Its dark berries have been used as inexpensive (and somewhat weak) dye, and as ink.  Its roots, berries, and leaves have been used as traditional medicine, and are also deadly poison.

That is the beautiful contradiction of poke.  It’s a very tasty, nutrient dense food, available at a crucial time of year, that can kill you.  When and how poke goes from being food to poison, or poison to food, is mostly personal and family tradition.  We have created our own poke related traditions based off of the most lenient opinions of friend and neighbors.  

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A mature plant with ripening berries.  Note the bright red stems and stalks.

First to address some of the myths:

      • Poke must be picked before the stems turn red.  Usually the stems will turn red as the plant gets older/bigger, but that’s not always true.  Sometimes they come up from the ground red.  We’ve eaten them red, no one died.
      • It must be under 18 inches tall.  Again, this is a way of making sure you’re picking young, less poisonous poke, but it’s just a guideline, not a law.  I’ve eaten poke that was taller, and I’ve also seen fully mature, fruiting plants just at 18 inches.
      • The stem must be smaller than your thumb.  For starters whose thumb?  Some sprouts from old plants come up from the ground bigger than my thumb.  This past spring I was told of a woman who would bread and fry the big stems like okra and that didn’t kill her.
      • There is a date after which poke will kill you.  There’s no date when the plant suddenly says to itself “now I’ll kill them all”.  Actually, while we think of poke as a spring green because that is when most of it comes up, it continues sprouting into the summer.  The plants in later summer are first or second year plants.  They are short with thin stems and wide leaves.  There is usually not enough to make up a proper mess of poke, but they can be added for flavor and novelty to a pot of greens.
      • It’s so poisonous, just one berry can kill you.  Maybe just one berry can kill someone, but not our children.  They both had one incident each with “that blueberry is nasty” before they learned the plant.
      • Pokeberry wine.  It’s not really a thing.  There are a few uncited sources that say pokeberries were historically used as a coloring for cheap wine.  I personally find it doubtful that this was a widespread practice.  A medicinal version of pokeberry wine is more likely.  There is an unconfirmed possibility that the seeds are poison while the juice and fruit is not, so that once strained the juice could be consumed.  As every other portion of the plant is poisonous I am skeptical of this claim also.  Nevertheless there are probably some people who have used pokeberries prepared in some manner as effective medical treatment for something.  The medicinal claims of poke are extremely varied (cancer, mastitis, itching, syphilis), and I am sure it has been used for many purposes.  We personally do not drink any form of pokeberry wine, and have no plans to.
      • It must be boiled three times in clean water.  This is a terrible way to cook poke.  Usually after it has been reduced to a green mush in this manner it’s added to scrambled  eggs, which in my opinion is also a terrible way to cook eggs.  Blanched in boiling water once is sufficient in most cases.  

 

We are especially blessed on our land, it has an abundance of poke, and every time we move dirt or clear land it brings up more.  Last year we started a wild eatables garden, which is mostly a poke bed.  It is a raised bed with some topsoil and when we’re clearing land other places we save up the large, white taproots of the poke we clear and throw them in the poke bed.  We don’t even bury them, they just grow.  

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Our wild edible bed.  The most prominent poke is to the right side.  Hibiscus on the left.

If you don’t have any poke grounds yet now is the time to prepare for next spring.  In our opinion poke is best when it is a short little shoot, more like asparagus than a green.  At that size it is often still hidden under leaves and in brush and can be hard to spot if you don’t already know where to look.  So now, when the poke is large and starting to set its dark berries, is the time to find it and take note of its location for next spring.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the ideal time and size of poke to harvest is different for everyone.  We like earliest shoots, when the leaves are still shiny and wrinkled agains the stems.  These sprouts only come up early in the spring toward the beginning of April.  When those are gone, we also harvest the taller plants, up to about 2 feet at the most, with stems that aren’t too thick, and haven’t set flowers yet.  The time of year is not particularly important.  There is still new first year poke coming up now that is edible, although not as well flavored as spring poke.

Once you’ve harvested, this is how we prepare it.  If you want to save it for later, after you strain it from the water you can freeze it for later.  It can also be canned by following the directions for garden greens.

    1. Wash immediately.  It is MUCH easier to wash fresh.  Once the leaves wilt it takes longer to wash.
    2. Drop into boiling water for a few minutes.  Really just blanch it, this isn’t a stewing process.  
    3. Strain well.  The less water left in it the less splattering in the skillet.
    4. Fry on high heat in bacon fat or butter.  It only needs to be cooked a few minutes.  Just until the stems are soft, or the leaves wither.
    5. Season with seasoned salt and pepper.

For us, no matter how much I pick, the poke doesn’t last long.  So for a special treat this year I froze two large bags and labeled one Thanksgiving, and one Christmas.  They will make for a special winter treat.

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Early sprouts, with their leaves still close to the stalk are our favorite.

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