Below our home and out back behind the old barns, which 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, or Shang lu, is a striking and irresistible plant. It is alluring as it matures and streaks purple into its stems, growing clusters of creamy blossoms and then the berries, deep purple with fuchsia stems, staining fingers vibrant pink.
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.
Traditional Uses of Pokeberry
In the Appalachia, they make poke greens “sallat,” (by picking shoots before purple/red streaks appear, at about 6″ tall), poke berry jelly, poke root oil, and pokeberry water.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
The root in TCM is called Shang lu, and it is bitter, cold to neutral, downward directing, toxic, and to be used with great caution. It enters the Bladder, Kidney, Large Intestine, Spleen, and Lung. It is traditionally 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 traditionally 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, its traditional use is 1–10 drops 1–3x/day. It is also made into an oil and used topically over affected areas.
The berries are traditionally 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 is traditionally used similarly to or in combination with red root and cleavers. It is believed that now is 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. People will also use it in the spring when they may be ready to cleanse 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 (see caution below).
- 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 (see caution below). According to traditional use, this may help prevent rheumatisms and promote immune-recovery and strength.
Traditional Uses for Inflammation
Another traditional use of the berries medicinally for helping arthritis and other inflammations is to swallow one whole 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 (see caution below).
Use With Caution
The word toxic can be a strong deterrent to medicine, but it is important to learn 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, check in with your care provider before starting any new health regimen, and observe your body. If rashes appear, or abdominal discomfort occurs, discontinue use and contact your care provider.
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 available, outside our back doors.