Pokeweed: A Forgotten American Leafy Green

Pokeweed is a leafy North American plant that was once widely used as medicine and as food by Native Americans. You can find it throughout the Eastern states and in parts of California as well. How it was used differed from tribe to tribe, the Rappahannock people made a fermented infusion of the leaves while the Navajo used it as an emetic. Cooked pokeweed continues to be popular in some parts of the Appalachian region.

Even though it was used by Native Americans for centuries, pokeweed fell out of favor for a long time. Partly, this was because of how difficult it was to prepare. Another reason may have been the fact that pokeweed was associated with poverty. People often don’t want to think about the hardship associated with the histories of certain foods. It has seen a mild resurgence in recent years with foraging now becoming a popular activity among foodies.

The name pokeweed comes from pocan, the Algonquin name for pokeweed. Other names for pokeweed include inkberry — it gets this name from the pigment in its berries. The pigment from pokeberries works as a fabric dye and can be used as writing ink. You will also see pokeberry referred to as poke sallet, which is pronounced to sound like poke salad.

Pokeweed’s many medicinal applications were described in King’s American Dispensatory, written by Dr. John King.

Pokeweed is foraged rather than cultivated.

Pokeweed flavor profile

Pokeweed’s flavor is similar to cooked spinach. If anything, it is even more understated than spinach. It also causes a slight tingling sensation on the tongue that some attribute to remnants of its toxins.

Health benefits of pokeweed

Pokeweed’s health benefits come from nutrients like:

  • Vitamins: Pokeweed is said to provide a significant amount of vitamins A and C, though some of that vitamin C may be lost when you cook it.
  • Minerals: Pokeweed is a good source of calcium and iron.

Adding pokeweed to your diet may prevent or treat these conditions:

  • Viral infections: Pokeweed contains a compound referred to as pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP) that is believed to protect from herpes and other viral infections.
  • Cancer: Some experts believe that PAP deactivates the ribosomes in cells, which lowers your risk of developing certain cancers.

Health concerns

Saponins and oxalates in pokeweed can be fatal to humans and animals. These compounds are concentrated in the roots, which is why they should be avoided. The roots are toxic enough that adults have died from eating them. Symptoms of poisoning from pokeweed include nausea, diarrhea, and breathing difficulties.

Common uses

Poke leaves and stems are commonly viewed as the only edible parts of the plant and you should only eat the young ones. The berries can be juiced if you take care to avoid crushing the seeds since the seeds are poisonous. Older leaves, stems and the roots are all to be avoided.

Keep in mind that you can’t just pick pokeweed leaves from the plant and cook them. They have to be boiled three times and peeled first. Each boil should last for 10 to 15 minutes.

One common preparation is to fry up pokeweed leaves. This is done after the boiling and peeling steps. They are usually fried in bacon grease or with fatback. Keep in mind that like collard greens, pokeweed shrinks down a lot when you cook it so you need to start with a large amount of it.