You know the old saying, “You need poke salet to thin your blood and get you ready for the summer”? This spring tonic is a controversial nefarious weed. More than likely growing wild in your backyard, Pokeweed has been a southern delicacy for centuries. You won’t find this weed on an official list of edible native plants. This wild green comes with a warning label due to its relation to the nightshade plant. But yet, every spring “poke salad” fanciers gather the young shoots despite the warning label.
Gathering the wild greens was no easy job. Armed with an old case knife and lard bucket or a basket, generations of families spent long mornings in early Spring roaming the hillsides, along fence rows, and in open fields searching for pokeweed. It’s a long mountain tradition that if the sun shines on the first day of spring, there will be pokeberry bushes blooming within four weeks.
The devil lies within the details. It’s all in how you cook it!
Caution and attention to detail are important when preparing and cooking pokeweed. Due to the toxins from the plant, symptoms can range from mild to lethal if not prepared accurately. There is no official recipe for preparing this leafy green. Most recipes for this precarious dish are handed down orally from past generations. The recipe is a living knowledge that is slowly being forgotten and fading with new generations. Picked when they’re young, the leaves must be boiled and drained a few times before cooking. The berries produced by pokeweed can be eaten safely by birds but the leaves themselves can be poisonous to mammals, including us humans. After that much-needed boiling and draining (to remove the toxins), they’re cooked in hot oil or bacon fat and sometimes served scrambled with eggs.
But don’t let the warning label scare you off! Personally, I feel it has a lot of superfluous warnings and misconceptions regarding its poisonous reputation. I’ve known people who grew up consuming Pokeweed and have never become ill or sick eating it. Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas used to can and sell poke salet. Sadly, in the Spring of 2000, the company could not find enough people to harvest enough of the plant to make it profitable.
Poke Salet even became famous back in the late ’60s with the legendary song, “Poke Salad Annie” written by Tony Joe White. It was released in 1969 and was number 8 on the top billboard. Other famous artists have released their own version of the song such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and most recently Foo Fighters.
Sometimes referred to as “wild spinach” or “poor man’s spinach, the indigenous herb was described by Henry David Thoreau as one of the most perfect floral emblems in nature and its stems are more beautiful than most flowers. During the Civil War and Great Depression, it was the only thing edible for months at a time. Aside from being poisonous, its association with poverty has also given poke salet a negative connotation. Most folks that ate the feral weed grew up very poor. With stores of winter food supplies dwindling, the bounty of nature in late spring could not come soon enough. Starved for nourishment, Native Americans and early pioneers eagerly awaited the heralds of spring. In forest and fields, they searched for the first edible plants of the season to restore health and vigour to their own depleted bodies.
In 1650, pokeweed had been successfully introduced in southern Europe by the early colonist who discovered the plant in the New World. Pokeweed was used by Europeans as a dye in cheap wines. The nobility objected and launched the first campaign to eradicate the plant. But their efforts failed and by 1850, American biblical scholars speculated that the Hyssop and the Mustard of the Bible were actually pokeweeds. By the 20th century, Americans of all races applied various parts of the poke plant as cures for almost every conceivable ailment including cancer, syphilis, ulcers, hemorrhoids, rabies, obesity, ringworm, corns and the seven-year itch.
Old-time remedies like using pokeberry juice to treat coop or boiling the root in water to make a tea to apply topically to rashes to cure the itch. Children used the pokeberry juice as ink and using a chicken feather as a quill. A poultice of poke root is good for poisonous snake bites. Polk leaves could be applied for a nail in the foot or wet the leaves and apply on the forehead to cure a fever. Native Americans also used pokeweed for medicinal purposes. The taproot may be as big as your thigh and as long as your leg. The root contains phytolacca which is a strong laxative. Cows have been known to lose their calves after eating the leaves and berries. Pigs have died from eating the unearthed pokeweed root. Pokeberry leaves heated in vinegar will cause any skin sores to heal.
Don’t Hang out your wash in pokeberry time!
The old saying was just caution against having the household linens decorated with purple during pokeweed season. It signifies in a folksy way the tremendous importance of pokeweed as a food source for wildlife. Pokeweed is a major food source for at least 30 species of birds including songbirds, bluebirds, robins, thrushes, mockingbirds and woodpeckers. The berries on the plant are one of the last remaining food sources for birds during the winter months. Many mammals also are highly dependent on pokeberries in autumn. Hunters have reported seeing droppings of foxes, racoons, skunks, and opossums containing the seeds and skins of pokeberries. Black bears are also fond of the berries. What may seem like an invasive weed in your gardening landscape, Pokeweed is not the hideous plant that its reputation seems to hold. Our wildlife needs it to survive the winter months. Pokeweed berries look like old-timey shoe buttons. Just make sure to educate your children about the red berries on the plant! Their beauty is very tempting to pull off the vine and eat. I would caution having this plant in parks, schools, and playgrounds where children frequently play.
That’s “poke salet” not “poke salad”! Pokeweed is sometimes called “poke salet” which sounds like “salad” but the two terms are very different.
The word “salet” is from an old English word meaning “cook greens” and is considered a potherb. Pot herbs are always cooked and “salad” herbs are eaten raw. Recent research reveals evidence that compounds in pokeweed are antiviral and is being studied for it’s potential against AIDS. Clinical results are also promising in studying the proteins of pokeweed in the treatment of childhood leukaemia and ovarian cancer. Pokeweed is a survivor. The American Horticultural Society published that pokeberry seeds have been known to lay dormant for half a century and then sprout and occupy a field. This perennial plant always seems to surface in any type of soil and because of its strong root system, mowing it down periodically does not kill it.
The latest technology is using the red dye from pokeberries in the field of solar energy to coat fibre-based solar cells to increase the efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity. Pokeweed continues to be a dietary staple in Appalachian and Southern cuisine. Native Americans use the plant not only as a food source but also used the berries to make ink and dyes to color feathers, garments and their horses. Many documents and letters that were penned during the Civil War were written in pokeberry juice that now reside in museums today. For many true southerners and mountain folk, the chance to gather “a mess of poke sallet” satisfies a craving hardly understood by folks who never knew down-home cooking at its best! Poke deserves more popularity. After all, what else can you name that is so tasty and free!
There are celebrations held annually throughout southern communities known as the Poke Salet Festival. Poke salet festivals are held in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky to honor the plant’s historical role in southern and mountain traditions.
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