Other names: Pokeweed, Phytolacca, Shang Lu, P. decandra
Habitat: N. America
Poke leaves are poisonous. They are said to be safe to eat when young, the toxins developing as the plants grow older. Another report says that the seeds and root are poisonous. The plant sap can cause dermatitis in sensitive people. The plant contains substances that cause cell division and can damage chromosomes. These substances can be absorbed through any abrasions in the skin, potentially causing serious blood aberrations and so it is strongly recommended that the people wear gloves when handling the plant. Avoid during pregnancy. Even children who consume even 1 berry should have emergency poison treatment should be instituted. Up to 10 berries are considered harmless for adults.
Poke has a long history of medicinal use, being employed traditionally in the treatment of diseases related to a compromised immune system. It contains potent anti-inflammatory agents, antiviral proteins and substances that affect cell division. These compounds are toxic to many disease-causing organisms, including the water snails that cause schistosomiasis. All parts of the plant are toxic, an excess causing diarrhoea and vomiting. This remedy should be used with caution and preferably under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. It should not be prescribed for pregnant women. The root is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory, cathartic, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic and purgative. The dried root is used as an anodyne and anti-inflammatory. The root is taken internally in the treatment of auto-immune diseases (especially rheumatoid arthritis), tonsillitis, mumps, glandular fever and other complaints involving swollen glands, chronic catarrh, bronchitis etc. The fresh root is used as a poultice on bruises, rheumatic pains etc, whilst a wash made from the roots is applied to swellings and sprains. The fruit has a similar but milder action to the roots.The juice is used in the treatment of cancer, haemorrhoids and tremors. A poultice made from the fruit is applied to sore breasts. A tea made from the fruit is used in the treatment of rheumatism, dysentery etc. The plant has an unusually high potassium content and the ashes, which contain over 45% caustic potash, have been used as a salve for ulcers and cancerous growths. The leaves are cathartic, emetic and expectorant. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh root of Poke. Its main action is on the throat, breast, muscular tissues and the joints.
Description of Poke:
Phytolacca americana, Poke is a PERENNIAL growing to 2 m (6ft) by 1.5 m (5ft) at a fast rate.
It is hardy to zone 4 and is not frost tender. It is in flower from Aug to September, and the seeds ripen from Sep to November. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs)
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil.
Cultivation of Poke:
An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils, though preferring a moisture retentive soil in full sun or partial shade. Plants can be grown in quite coarse grass, which can be cut annually in the autumn. Succeeds in an open woodland garden, growing well under trees. Whilst the dormant plant is hardy in much of Britain, the young growth in spring can be damaged by late frosts. A very ornamental plant, it often self sows when in a suitable position. Cultivated as a dye plant and on a small scale for its edible young shoots, there is at least one named form. ‘White Stem’ has white stems and the berries yield a golden-peach dye instead of purple. It is not yet known (1992) if it will breed true from seed. This plant is an alternative host to a number of viral diseases that affect members of the Amaryl lidaceae, Liliaceae (broad view, including plants recently  moved into separate families) and Solanaceae. Plants seem to be immune to the predations of rabbits.
Propagation of Poke:
Seed – sow autumn or spring in a cold frame. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. If you have sufficient seed, it might be worthwhile trying an outdoor sowing in a seed bed in early spring. Grow the plants on in the seedbed for their first year and plant them out the following spring. Division in March or October. Use a sharp spade or knife to divide the rootstock, making sure that each section has at least one growth bud. Very easy, larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions. We have found that it is better to pot up the smaller divisions and grow them on in light shade in a cold frame until they are well established before planting them out in late spring or early summer.
Collection: The root should be unearthed in the late autumn or spring.Clean it and split lengthwise before drying.The root is best harvested in the autumn and can be dried for later use.
Culinary uses of Poke:
Edible Parts: Fruit, Leaves.
Edible Uses: Colouring.
Leaves – they must be cooked and even then it is best to change the water once. They are used like spinach. Only the young leaves should be used since they become toxic with age. Caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Young shoots – cooked. An asparagus substitute, they are delicious. The shoots are sometimes blanched before using, or forced in cellars to provide an early crop. The tender clear inner portion of the stem can be rolled in cornmeal and fried. Although cultivated on a small scale in N. America for its shoots, caution is advised, see notes above. A nutritional analysis is available. Fruit – cooked and used in pies. Poisonous raw, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. Even the cooked fruits should be viewed with caution. The fruit is a berry about 12mm in diameter. A red dye is obtained from the fruit and used as a food colouring.
Figures in grams (g) or miligrams (mg) per 100g of food.
Shoots (Dry weight)
- 274 Calories per 100g
- Water : 0%
- Protein: 31g; Fat: 4.8g; Carbohydrate: 44g; Fibre: 0g; Ash: 20.2g;
- Minerals – Calcium: 631mg; Phosphorus: 524mg; Iron: 20.2mg; Magnesium: 0mg; Sodium: 0mg; Potassium: 0mg; Zinc: 0mg;
- Vitamins – A: 62mg; Thiamine (B1): 0.95mg; Riboflavin (B2): 3.93mg; Niacin: 14.3mg; B6: 0mg; C: 1619mg;
Actions: Anti-rheumatic, stimulant, anti-catarrhal, purgative,emetic.
Part Used: Root.
Indications: Poke Root has a wide range of used and is a valuable addition to many holistic treatments. It may be seen primarily as a remedy for use in infection of the upper respiratory tract, removing catarrh and aiding the cleansing of the lymphatic glands. It may be used for catarrh,tonsillitis, laryngitis, swollen glands, mumps. It will be found of value in lymphatic problems elsewhere in the body and especially for mastitis, where it can be used internally and as a poultice. Poke Root also has a use in rheumatism, especially where it is long standing. Care must be taken with this herb as in large dosage it is powerfully emetic and purgative. Externally as a lotion or ointment it may be used to rid the skin of scabies and other pests.
Priest & Priest tell us that it is a “stimulating and relaxing alterative: promotes the removal of catabolic wastes and the products of fatty degeneration. Specific for skeletal congestions, and for serous and glandular tissues.” They give the following specific indications: Chronic rheumatism and arthritis, neuralgia and lumbago.Tonsillitis and parotitis, mastitis, ovaritis, orchitis. Enlarged thyroid and lymphatics.
Ellingwood considered its most direct actions in “inflammation of glandular structures, especially of the lymphatic glands. Pains of a rheumatic character from deficient catabolism are relieved by it. It is directly indicated in irritation, inflammation and ulceration of mucous membranes in rheumatic subjects, sanious ulcers, scabies, tinea capitis, psoriasis and all skin diseases. It is especially valuable in the squamous variety of skin diseases” In addition he recommends it for the following patholgies: inflammations of the throat, forms of diphtheria, goitre, adenitis,mastitis, glandular and skin disorders, syphilitic disorders, varicose ulcers, psoriasis, dermal abscesses, fissures, boils, carbuncles. Membranous and spasmodic croup.
Preparations & Dosage:
Decoction: only small amounts of this herb should be used. Put 1/4 teaspoonful of the root in a cup of water, bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.
Tincture: take 1/4 ml of the tincture three times a day.
CAUTION: In large doses Poke Root is a powerful emetic and purgative.
Combinations: For lymphatic problems it may be used with Cleavers or Blue Flag.
Other uses of Poke:
Ink, Insecticide, Soap.
A red ink and a dye are obtained from the fruit. A beautiful colour, though it is not very permanent. It makes a good body paint, washing off easily when no longer required, though the slightly toxic nature of the berries should be remembered. The root stock is rich in saponins and can be used as a soap substitute. Cut the root into small pieces and simmer it in boiling water to obtain the soap. The plant is currently (1980) being evaluated for its snail-killing properties.
Esoteric uses of Poke:
Magickal uses include finding lost objects and breaking hexes and curses. Carry to increase courage. Add an infusion of poke root to bath water to break hexes.
* Triterpenoid saponins; the phytolaccosides A, B, C, D& E. Based on the aglycones phytolaccagenin and phytolaccic acid
* Lectins; mixture known as `pokeweed mitogen’, consisting of a series of glycoproteins