Scientific Name: Phytolacca americana
Also Known as: Pokeweed, pokeroot, Phytolacca decandra, inkberry, scoke, and cancer jalap
Parts Used: Root, leaves, and berries
Native to: Southeastern United States
Some Historical Uses: Many uses among Native American peoples, including for respiratory ailments, rheumatism, arthritis, dysentery, and cancer. Use of poke for these ailments and others continued into the nineteenth century. Other species used medicinally in Europe.
Side Effects and Contraindications: Poisonous
Areas of Further Research: Possible uses against cancer and as antiviral against HIV
Also used for: Ink and dye; food (poke salet)
A protein in pokeweed is potent against HIV. Hear the show!
Traditional Medicinal Uses
Native Americans used poke medicinally. The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia boiled the berries to make a tea for rheumatism. The Delaware Indians prescribed pokeweed as a cardiac stimulant. Other tribes used pokeweed for rheumatism, arthritis, dysentery, and cancer. In nineteenth-century America, non-Indian people adopted native medicinal uses of pokeweed. They also treated syphilis with it (it mustn't have worked!). One cancer remedy consisted of juice from poke leaves mixed with gunpowder. In Appalachia and the South, people used the dried berries in poultices on sores.
Photo credit: Mitsuko Williams, Associate Professor Emerita of Library Administration, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, with permission
For many, especially in Appalachia, poke salet is a traditional spring food. (By the way, "salet" has many acceptable spellings, e.g., "sallet," "salat.")
Check out Peggy's Antiquated [or "Old as Dirt"] Recipe for a poke salet recipe and other poke lore. Among other things, Peggy explains that, in old English, "salet" signified cooked greens as opposed to "salad", or raw greens.
People prepare poke salet by many different methods. One classic way consists of gathering young poke greens and washing thoroughly. Boil the greens with a little salt till tender. Pour off water. In new water, add salt and pepper and cook again. Pour off water. The third time, add new water and such seasonings as chopped onion and bacon grease or pieces of pork. You can also add a little sugar to cut the bitterness. Garnish with a hard-boiled egg and crumbled bacon. You may also serve atop a bed of scrambled eggs, or just scramble it in with the eggs.
Woman cooking poke at Harlan, Kentucky, Poke Sallet Festival
Poke, HIV, and Leukemia
Poke, in particular, the pokeweed antiviral protein, or PAP, may be at the forefront of a new approach to HIV and AIDS. Making use of PAP's unique effectiveness against HIV, researchers are exploring the possibility of using it in a "chemical condom"--a vaginal "microbicide" gel that could protect women in particular from infection. Such a gel would differ from spermicides currently in use by not interfering with sperm activity. PAP also shows no evidence of damaging cells in the genital tract, while repeated use of spermicides can cause inflammation and actually increase susceptibility to HIV. In Africa and other places where AIDS has become pandemic, vaginal microbicides offer new hope, though development is taking time.
PAP has also held promise for people with leukemia. However, a recent incident casts doubt on the safety of PAP. In January 2006, it was found that one of the main PAP researchers in the US, Fatih Uckun, and his research institute, Hughes Parker, omitted three research-animal deaths from their reports of PAP studies. In one study, 3 out of 8 chimpanzees given slightly higher doses of PAP died from a side effect. How this finding may impact ongoing research on an otherwise promising phytomedicinal is unknown.
Children orphaned by AIDS in Zambia. SOS Children’s Villages UK
If you do try poke, always remember you're taking a risk. It's poisonous!
In 1965, in one incident, 51 people prepared poke properly, according to reports, but still became sick. Poisoning can also occur through touch, if the plant's toxic compounds get into the blood stream through cuts in the skin. So it's not a bad idea to wear gloves while gathering poke.
Poke Salet Festivals
Several towns in the South have annual poke festivals. In 2004, the town of Harlan, Kentucky, held its fiftieth. Harlan's Poke Sallet Festival usually occurs in late May or early June. In addition to games, music, and other festivities, vendors and local restaurants serve up their favorite poke salet recipes--for example, Poke Salet Pizza.
Harlan residents credit poke, which grows abundantly in the area, with keeping them and their forbears from starving during the Great Depression.
Gainsboro, Tennessee, is the site of another annual poke festival. Check out Stephen and Suzie Lackey's 11-minute independent film about the festival.
During the Civil War, soldiers without better supplies used poke berry juice as ink to write letters home. In museums and other collections today, the ink is still legible.
Each poke berry contains fifty or more seeds. That's a lot of seeds per plant, but the high number seems necessary since few actually germinate. To have a chance of germination, poke seeds must first pass through the digestive tract of a bird or other animal. The great interior heat of the animal, its powerful digestive juices, and the roughening action of peristalsis all help soften the seed up in time for spring.
Pokeweed References for the Plant Detective Radio Show
Antiviral Agents Bulletin. “CD7 Antibody-Pokeweed Antiviral Protein Immunotoxin in Trials for HIV-Infection.” May 1998. www.rdi.gpo.or.th/NetZine/V3N24/pokeweed.htm
Croley, Victor A. “Poke Sallet.” Mother Earth News March/April 1971.
Duke, James A. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1986, 367-68.
Georgetown University, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program. Urban Herbs: Medicinal Plants at Georgetown University (website). “Pokeweed.” Feb. 28, 2006 www8.georgetown.edu/departments/physiology/cam/urbanherbs/pokeweed.htm
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