Below our home, out back, behind the old barns, that are falling down plank by plank, from the drilling of the wood bees, there is a pokeweed forest growing. An old cedar came down two winters ago, and it seems all these dormant poke seeds finally saw the light to germinate. Poke, Phytolacca americana, Shang lu, is a striking and irresistable plant. Alluring as it matures and streaks purple into its stems, clusters of creamy blossoms, and then the berries, staining fingers vibrant pink, deep purple with fuschia stems. How can anyone resist this toxic plant? Its beauty has probably been the reason people have persisted in discovering its uses as food and medicine.
This is the end of October, and I have just harvested the last of the berries, leaving many for the bears and the birds. Poke has been used as medicine, food and dye around the world for hundreds of years. In the Apppalachia, they make poke greens “sallat,” (pick shoots before they have purple/red streaks appear, at about 6″ tall), poke berry jelly, poke root oil, and pokeberry water. The root, in TCM is called Shang lu, and is bitter, cold to neutral, downward directing, toxic, to be used with great caution. It enters the Bladder, Kidney, Large Intestine, Spleen, (and Lung). It is used to treat edema, in the upper, middle, and lower burners, with its action of strongly unblocking the water gates and promoting movement of catabolic wastes.
In large doses poke root may cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in larger doses it may cause respiratory failure and death.
Poke is also used as a lymph cleanser and mover for glandular inflammations, such as mononucleosis, mastitis, swollen glands in the armpit,throat and neck; and for dissolving cysts in the ovaries or fatty tumors elsewhere in the body. Internally taken as a tincture one may use 1-10 drops 1-3x/day. It may also be made into an oil and used topically over affected areas.
The berries may be used similarly, in a tincture, a jelly or pokeberry water to stave off rheumatism, aid in recovery from the flu, and to support healthy immune functioning. Pokeberry may be used similarly to or in combination with red root and cleavers. Its a good time of year to make this medicine, for we are headed into winter, where the cold and our slightly more sedentary lifestyle and richer foods, can cause things to move slower and accumulate in our lymph and glandular system. You will also have it in the spring when you may be ready to cleanse the winter accumulations. This year I made a delicious jelly and a tincture of the berries. I am waiting a bit longer to harvest the root to make a root oil and tincture.
The seeds within the juicy pink berries are toxic, but the fruit is not. Here are a few recipes where can you avoid the seeds, and utilize fruit only.
3 cups ripe poke berries
3 cups water
1 Tbsp grass fed gelatin
1 cup sugar, or raw honey (if you use
raw honey add at the end)
Bring to boil and simmer 20 mins.
Gently crush the berries in the pot
with a potato masher.
Strain the seeds out.
Pour into jars.
Eat a little per day as needed.POKEBERRY WATER
Place 10 or so berries in a quart of water, and leave overnight. Strain the next morning, and drink 1/2 cup everyday for four days to prevent rheumatisms, and promote immune-recovery and strength.
Another way to use the berries medicinally is in the treatment/prevention of arthritis and other inflammations is to SWALLOW WHOLE one berry per day for seven days, adding one berry each day until you are up to seven berries in seven days. Then tapering down one berry per day from seven, six, five etc to one berry daily.
The word toxic can be a strong deterrent to medicine, but it is important for us to know how to use this prolific plant safely. And truly, all plants are to be used with caution, for they can create a unique, possibly adverse dynamic within each person’s bio-region! Always start with the smallest doses, and observe your body. If rashes appear, or abdominal discomfort occurs, discontinue use.
Thanks to the many before us who figured out the diverse poke uses. May this article promote aware, wise and cautious use of what we have availlable, outside our back doors.