What are poke berries

Out My Backdoor: The Wondrous Pokeberry

Humans have found a number of other uses for pokeweed. For example, the pokeberry’s red juice was once used as a dye. Native Americans are said to have decorated their horses with it. Early settlers placed fermented pokeberries in a hollowed-out pumpkin to prepare a concoction used to color cloth.

The next time you go to a museum and see letters and journals written during the War Between the States, any writing that appears to be penned with brown ink was probably done with pokeberry ink, which turns brown with age.

The pokeberry is also the subject of an interesting historical footnote. It seems some supporters of James Polk, the 11th president of the United States, mistakenly thought pokeberry was named for the president. As such, they would often wear springs of pokeweed on their lapels or around their neck in his honor.

Pokeweed has long been thought to have medicinal value. At one time it was employed to cure everything from boils to acne. Today, pokeberry is being researched as a possible treatment for cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, a chemical found in pokeberry juice has been used to successfully treat cancerous tumors in laboratory mice. The chemical is also being tested to determine if it can protect cells from HIV and AIDS.

Remarkably, the lowly pokeberry may help solve the energy crisis. Researchers at Wake Forest University have discovered that a dye derived from pokeberries doubles the efficiency of fibers used in solar cells to absorb solar energy.

Although pokeberries are rarely used in landscape designs in this country, such is not the case in Europe. The naturalized plant’s shiny dark berries, attractive foliage and colorful stems are helping earn it a place in European gardens.

I hope that if you have pokeberry plants trying to colonize an out-of-the way spot in your yard, you will let them grow. If you do, you will be rewarded with an attractive plant, a great source of food for wildlife, and more opportunities to watch and photograph wild animals, as well as something that you can use to teach your children and grandchildren lessons about history, science, and medicine.

You can even use pokeberry to teach them about times when something that appears to have little value can turn out to be a real treasure.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact [email protected]) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com.

Controlling Pokeweed: How To Get Rid Of Pokeberry Plants

While back in the day, Native Americans used parts of pokeberry weed in medicine and food, and many people down South have put the fruit into pies, you need to be careful how to use pokeweed berries to avoid toxic reactions. Therefore, home gardeners should identify what is pokeweed in order to help prevent accidental ingestion by domestic pets and children. Once identified, it is best to learn how to get rid of pokeberry plants, which are tenacious growers, getting up to ten feet tall.

What is Pokeweed?

Pokeweed or pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) is a native plant that grows in disturbed soils, such as fields and pastures. The plant is hazardous to livestock and all parts of the plant are considered toxic. It is a perennial with a red, woody stem boasting long, oval leaves that may get up to ten inches long.

Greenish flowers appear in July to September and yield to grape-like clusters of berries. While the fruits have been used in traditional medicine and pies, they are filled with compounds that cause unpleasant physical reactions.

It is best to know how to get rid of pokeberry plants to prevent ingestion by children. Small amounts generally do not harm adults, but the plant is full of several toxic compounds. The roots are the most toxic, but all parts of the plant are generally unsafe.

Leaves increase in toxicity with maturity but the juvenile foliage has been part of salads for generations. They need to be boiled twice, with a change of water each time to make the leaves safe for consumption. Berries are the least toxic, but it is wise not to ingest them unless you know proper preparation.

Common Pokeweed Control

Manual removal for common pokeweed control requires the gardener to dig deeply and get out the entire taproot. Pulling is not successful as it leaves behind roots that will regenerate. If you do nothing else, remove the fruits from the plant before they spread. The plant can produce up to 48,000 seeds, which remain viable in soil for 40 years. Birds seem unbothered by the berry toxicity and enjoy the fruit, planting seeds wherever they are excreted.

It is usually necessary to use chemicals to control pokeweed as the taproot is fleshy and extends deep into the soil. Chemicals to control pokeweed work best when the plant is young. Apply glyphosate directly to the leaves of the plant to kill it. This acts through the vascular system and while it takes a while to see results, eventually the chemical reaches the roots. Other chemicals to control pokeweed are dicamba and 2,4 D. Use spot applications on plants as they occur in your garden.

How to Use Pokeweed Berries

If you have some of this plant growing on your property and are feeling adventurous, you can try to use the berries in a pie. A safer use for the fruit, however, is as an ink or dye. Crushed berries yield a tremendous amount of juice, which was once used to color inferior wines. The juice also will dye fabrics a deep crimson or fuchsia color.

  1. 1 written on March 5th, 2010

    This was super helpful to me! I’ve tried to look online at several different comparisons of elderberry and pokeberry without much success coming away with a true knowlegde. Thank you for this though. I am not confused any more!

  2. 2 written on July 16th, 2010

    This was awesome and so helpful! Now I understand the difference

  3. 3Angela written on August 21st, 2010

    Thank you so much for this article. I’ve had the same experience as Danielle. Now, I realize that I have seen both and I’m pretty sure now that I will know the difference at a glance.

  4. 4Diane written on August 26th, 2010

    Good info! Thanks.

  5. 5Sharon Askew written on September 25th, 2010

    Your site was very helpful to me. I have looked on and off for 3 months for a comparison as I have a lot of ‘Poke” berries on my property, I am looking for Elderberries and thought that is what I had. Glad I found your site. Thank You

  6. 6Karla Hare written on October 4th, 2010

    I have both the elderberry and the poke berries in the woods, but I was not sure what the poke berries were. Now I know for sure what each are. Thank you for helping with the identification of each.

  7. 7Marlene Perry written on November 7th, 2010

    I had a pokeberry growing in my herb garden and didn’t know what it was. I did dig it out last summer because I had a feeling that I didn’t want it there. After looking at these pictures it is obvious what it was!

  8. 8dasuederods written on December 21st, 2010

    Thank you for a clear comparision of Pokeberry and Elderberry plants. I am interested in locating Pokeberry plants so I might replicate a recipe a friend prepared for me many years ago.

  9. 9Donna Hardin written on December 27th, 2010

    Thank you for the wonderful pictures…I want to know more about herbs and find myself insecure with them. Now, you have confirmed that we do indeed have elderberries growing on our farm! NOW, I want to learn what I can do with them….thank you!

  10. 10kathy written on September 20th, 2011

    Thank you so much for clearing the difference, i have a whole punch of polk in my backyard and have been trying to find answers if it was elderberries or what! lol thank again

  11. 11Teddi written on December 17th, 2011

    Super helpful!!!! Loved it, thanks!

  12. 12alaina written on January 3rd, 2012

    Thank you SO much! I moved into a house a couple years ago and left the purpleberried bushes that grew like weeds (and since this house was a nightmare with no landscaping I figured they probably WERE weeds! ). I chopped them back this year (left them at first thinking maybe birds liked them) and was wondering what to do this year. I was so worried I had ripped out and demolished food! haha, nope… POKE instead! 😀 this is the first site of the many I have searched to include a photos of BOTH and compare the clustering on each. THANK YOU! 😀

  13. 13Nancy Moores-Freeborn written on March 1st, 2012

    Wow ….Loved the information. Thank you <3

  14. 14 written on April 17th, 2012

    I found your site by searching “plants that look like elderberry” because I am trying to figure out what kind of plant I have. I am hoping it is elderberry. I live in Southeast Texas and a bush has sprouted up in one of my flower containers recently. It looks like elderberry, but it is not a mature plant so I can not tell for sure. It is about 2-3 feet in heighth. You describe the elderberry as having bb size berries. Mine are a little larger… like twice the size of a bb. Also, the berries are in umbrella-like clusters; however, the clusters are small (like 6 or more berries). The leaves are a very odd clustering of leaves. The leaves on each cluster range in size from tiny (1/ inch) to larger leaves under 2 inches long. There is NO redness or purple on the stems. Now, I am thinking this is not elderberry, but I have no idea what it is. If you have any idea, please email me at [email protected] . I do not want to cut this bush down if it is something good to have.

  15. 15Myra written on May 4th, 2012

    I am so glad that I found your site. I grew up on a farm. Both plants grew in our fields or on the roadsides. We were told to leave the berries alone on either plant because they were poison. My mother gathered the leaves from what she called the poke plant and cooked them. She parboiled them first, to remove the bitter taste which was probably oxalic acid. She drained the water and then cooked in fresh water, like spinach. We never got sick from eating this “poke salad” food.
    It has been too many years since childhood and am now trying to identify the plants growing wild in the woods behind my house. Thank you for offering a great side-by-side description.

  16. 16john written on May 31st, 2012

    Awsome info, now when I have my daughter with me on my treck through the woods I’ll finally be able to tell the difference between the two and pass that knowledge down to my daughter. Thanks for the article, it was very helpful.

  17. 17Nancy written on June 8th, 2012

    I have some wild shrubs in my back yard that are quite similar in description to the elderberry but the leaves are not serrated. They are quite smooth on the margin and remind me a bit of dogwood leaves. What kind of berry tree is this?

  18. 18kristine written on June 8th, 2012

    I have no idea Nancy. Without seeing several good photographs or seeing it in person, it would be hard to say as it could be any number of plants.

  19. 19Nancy written on July 7th, 2012

    Well, would anyone like a giant Pokeberry bush? I have one by my back door and have to wrestle my way back into the house taking the dogs out. It is “robust”, to say the least, purple arms, and I think quite grotesque! I will have to take another picture of it. It is growing handsomely even in 100+F. weather of the last week, but I’m watering a lot because my flowers are also there. It is like Jack and the Beanstalk, covering my kitchen window now at a height of 12-15 feet! My dogs are not interested in it, and I supervise them outside. I feed the birds and provide birdbaths and water…haven’t seen any eating the berries yet, but maybe I’ll get a first-hand view from that kitchen window! Think I’ll dye my hair and become a Hippie! I thought it odd that a tulip right next to it never got anywhere. Probably not a good thing next to my foundation.

  20. 20Carl Belken written on July 13th, 2012

    Thank you so very much for pointing out the differences between poke and elderberry. All my life I have mistaken poke for elderberry. That is because my mom and dad did not know the difference and they were born, raised, and spent the majority of their lives in the country. When I was a kid I remember mom fussing at me for getting my clothes stained by what she called elderberry but was actually poke. She also told me the berries were poison. Telling us kids something was poison was an excellent way of keeping us away from it.

  21. 21Lou written on July 17th, 2012

    I also looked at other sites and this site was fantastic at explaining and showing the differences between the two berries. I was raised in the country, but never paid much attention until I retired and had more time to start picking more berries to make jellies. A friend asked if we ever picked elderberries and I had no clue what they looked like. I knew there was some type of berry growing around where we picked raspberries and blackberries, but until I looked at your webpage had no clue that they were poke berries. Thank you for the excellent explanation and photos!

  22. 22 written on July 28th, 2012

    I have these growing in my front yard garden an wasn’t sure what they were, now I know. I think theyre very pretty an since there close to my front porch give some much needed privacy as I have a little cluster of them. They get pretty tall an I have pulled several of them out since I had to many. I guess the birds dropped the seeds there. Is really nice to know I don’t just have some weed in my yard but that it actually has a name!

  23. 23 written on July 31st, 2012

    THANK YOU! I thought some bushes that were growing in our back yard were elderberries, but turns out according to your pictures, they are pokeberries. I love the pretty red stalks!

  24. 24Mary written on August 21st, 2012

    We found what I thought MIGHT be elderberries on our new property. Thankfully I checked here before making wine out of what is actually Pokeberries! Thank you for the info.

  25. 25Ethel Kelley written on August 27th, 2012

    OK I have poke Can I make Jam or what ?

  26. 26kristine written on September 1st, 2012


    Poke is a very low dose botanical. I would not suggest making jam with it. Save that for the elderberries. 🙂

  27. 27 written on August 31st, 2012

    have a positive identification. Elderberry is sometimes confused with water hemlock, inkberry, or pokeberry, but if you look closely, they plants are quite

  28. 28Pat written on September 1st, 2012

    Good Morning! oh my goodness! my husband told me that the tree in our yard was Elderberry,I was searching for recipes to make use of all the fruit on the tree, found the perfect recipe, but something kept bothering me. I gathered some fruit and a couple of leaves fell in my colander. I decided to google for pictures, and your site came up! It was not an Elderberry but a Pokeberry bush. Thank YOU! we would surely have been quite uncomfortable if not very ill knowing how much we dish up fruit crisp desserts!

    I’m so thankful for your concise descriptions!
    bless you!!!

  29. 29Klarika written on September 2nd, 2012

    That was the best explanation with comparisson pictures that I could have every hoped for…thank you sooooo much and I will always look to your page for other ????able plants. (*:*)

  30. 30Nancy Nalian written on September 13th, 2012

    How do pokberry seeds get transmitted? I never had them in my yard before this summer. Once I saw the plant/weed growing, and not knowing what it was, we chose to let it grow. Did it get here via the wind, or bird droppings? Just curious.

  31. 31kristine written on September 18th, 2012

    Hi Nancy,

    Birds tend to spread the Poke plants through their droppings, they love to eat the berries.

  32. 32Saundra written on October 11th, 2012

    This article was so helpful.now I am certain I have Elderberry.Elderberry jelly here we come…………Never saw so many elderberrys in North Carolina before this year…….

  33. 33STEVE written on October 11th, 2012

    Wow..Finally figured out what this plant was thanks to your website. It’s been growing on the edge of my property by the woods every year for the past 20 plus years and always mildly wondered what it was and if I ate one of the berrys would I keel over from it. Finally sat down and came across your site and now I know…Poke Berry. Thanks!!

  34. 34Ray written on October 12th, 2012

    Thank you. We have Poke berries in our back yard… now I know.

  35. 35Laurie B written on November 16th, 2012

    Thank you for such an awesome article! This is exactly what I was looking for. I needed to know the difference so I wouldn’t gather the wrong berry 🙂

  36. 36Alan and Ann Alaia Woods written on June 5th, 2013

    much thanks; trying to distinguish between the two so we can use the pokeberry in marbling paper (with an acid addition to make it colorfast) so this is very helpful.

  37. 37wanda written on August 4th, 2013

    this is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen. I like how it show the difference between the two plants. very informative and could save a life.

  38. 38Mary Jo written on September 6th, 2013

    Thanks. My hubby (who is good with this stuff told me it was Pokeberry) so I wanted to see what the Elderberry looked like so I would know for myself in the future. It has been 30 years since I picked Elderberry as a child. I was planning to get rid of the Pokeberry but thanks to your fine information I will keep some of it around.

  39. 39Karen written on September 12th, 2013

    Are all elderberry leaves serrated? I just discovered to mature trees on our property and hope that we
    have the real deal. The leaves, however, have smooth edges.

  40. 40Randi Real written on September 19th, 2013

    I can see where pokeberries could be confused with chokecherries, but never elderberries! There is a huge difference.

  41. 41Beth written on October 8th, 2013

    Thanks for this information. It took me a while to find a site that was really helpful. I guess I will be throwing out the batch of what I thought was elderberry syrup! Thanks for helping avert a puke fest at our house 🙂

  42. 42Mamadee written on November 19th, 2013

    Do elderberries grow in KY? If so, where is the best place and what is the time of year to look?

  43. 43Frances Nugen written on December 30th, 2013

    My mother used to roll the stalk of a poke berry and fry them similar to fried chicken. We loved them.

  44. 44Frances Nugen written on December 30th, 2013

    My mother used to roll the stalk of a poke berry in flour and fry them similar to fried chicken. We loved them.

  45. 45Lanni written on January 6th, 2014

    My family has elderberries growing wild all over the family farm. We picked and froze 50 pounds in late summer. I am looking for a good elderberry syrup or elderberry elixir recipe.

  46. 46Terry written on February 15th, 2014

    Well, now I know the mystery berry bush that has been growing alongside our garage…Poke! thank you for an excellent explanation and description!

  47. 47Candy written on April 10th, 2014

    As children, we would take the pokeberries and mash them, strain them, and then soak sunflower leaves in the juice overnight. We’d hang the leaves in the garden and the flies would flock to the leaves, drink the juice, and die right there. It was fascinating. As kids, we were busy and we took care of the bug population. Even now, I love to see a pokeberry!!!

  48. 48Penny written on May 9th, 2014

    Wonderful article! Thanks SO much! We have some pokeberry bushes growing on our property. The berries are just starting to form – they’re still green. I was hoping that they might be elderberry. You cleared that up, beautifully. Again, thanks! 🙂

  49. 49Doug llamas written on July 14th, 2014

    Thanks I thought I had elderberrys growin at my place along the road, I was going to pick them and give to someone to make jelly out of or something. Close call

  50. 50Kelly written on September 28th, 2014

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been keeping my eye out for elderberries, and saw pokeberries today, and excitedly cut a few bunches down. Had to do a bit of extensive googling to double-check (while elderberries didn’t look exactly like what I’d picked, I wanted to believe…), and found your page.

  51. 51Janet written on October 14th, 2014

    Thank you for your very excellent lesson. After living here for over 7 years we have never had poke berry plants. I have a very tall one on the sunny side of our deck. Can it be trimmed, can it cause zkin sensitities and what would you recommend I do with it. It isnow about 8ft and growing o my deck. Thank you, Janet

  52. 52Piper written on October 25th, 2014

    The best plant pictures that has ever been my experience to view.
    It is as if they were actual plants and not some obscure, generic picture
    of a plant of sorts – a very rare thing – thank you.

  53. 53Rena written on October 25th, 2014

    Thanks for the very clear and informative article! When I was a kid, visiting Grandma and Grandpa on their farm in Indiana, I used the berries from a bush next to the house as filling for my mud pies. She about flipped out, said they were poisonous, but I always wondered about that and now I see she was right as they definitely were pokeberries not elderberries.

  54. 54Julie written on October 26th, 2014

    How do you prepare your poke for swollen lymph nodes and for plugged ducts?

  55. 55Sue written on November 21st, 2014

    I now believe my large overhanging plant to be a pokeberry. I thought it was poison sumac as last summer when working by the log pile (where the pokeberry plant grew) I broke out in a terrible rash all over my face. Took a prescription of prednisone and a topical cream to get rid of it. Can the pokeberry bush also cause such a rash?

  56. 56kristine written on November 22nd, 2014

    Sue, yes Poke can cause rashes for some people. I hope that doesn’t happen to you again!

  57. 57Alton Lathrop written on June 16th, 2015

    I see all these sites for the Poke Plant/bush/ect. I have been trying to find a site whereby I can buy a Poke Plant or bush to plant in my back yard…I cannot find one for sale. If there is one out there for sale, please let me know through my Email. [email protected]
    Thank you

  58. 58Ralph Wood written on August 14th, 2015

    As far as I know there isn’t anyone who sells the plant because it is a weed. I have tried many times to get the seeds to germinate, but no success there either. The seed is a favorite food of Dove. My property in central Georgia had over 100 acres of pokeberry in 2004 & 2005 that were planted naturally by dove. In 2003 the land was cleared of all trees and brush then and burned down to the bare ground. Dove flew over the land pooping out the seeds they had eaten and the seeds grew. I am not a professional and I have no expertise in plants or animals, but as many times & ways that I have tried to get pokeberry to grow from seed, I have come to the conclusion that pokeberry seeds must go through the digestive system of a bird before they become fertile.

  59. 59PJ written on August 16th, 2015

    Ralph – it is quite possible you are correct. I believe the term is scarify. There are many plants that have a super tough seed shell that must be “broken” (or damaged by something) before the sprout can break through. There are many plants that have seeds that won’t sprout without a trip through an animal”s digestive track which serves to weaken the seed coat with digestive acids and enzymes.. If I am not mistaken, the purpose of this is for survival. Better that the couple hundred seeds sprout somewhere else, and don’t choke out the mama plant.

  60. 60T.A.H.H. written on August 22nd, 2015

    These have been growing in our yard for many years now. I’ve always pulled them out, not knowing what they were. Today while feeding I noticed a large area behind some of our landscaped yard with this plant, fruit ripe. I picked one berry, squished it between my fingers and tasted it. It was sweet, but I wanted to know exactly what it was before I picked more. I know know, it’s sad something so l Iovely,and sweet is poisonous to us. But the upside is, we do have a lot of Dove on and Hummingbirds on our property. I’m thinking I should let it grow, what are your thoughts?

  61. 61Eileen T. written on September 1st, 2015

    I have a bush, actually a few that have these purple berries and the leaves are big, the stems are thick n purplish with some green – most likely a picture would help better for you to help me identify. I live in CT. Since I’m reading that the look a like is death within 15 minutes, I’m not sure I want to experiment. Although my husband and I are very curious to what they are.

  62. 62Marie written on September 15th, 2015

    Thank you for the proper identification and information on your website. I finally know the name of the large plant growing beside my house! I hesitated to cut it down because I am a bird lover and thought they would enjoy the berries.

  63. 63Diane written on September 15th, 2015

    Thanks for the example. My daughter is making elderberry syrup ( as it has antiviral properties. ) for my grandson. There are pokeberries right beside the elderberries. She thought its was a different kind of elderberry. Now we know

  64. 64Maria written on September 17th, 2015

    Super helpful! Thank you!!!!

  65. 65Jacky written on September 19th, 2015

    Awesome article so helpful! Everything I needed to know

  66. 66Emily written on September 19th, 2015

    Does an elderberry tree/shrub have thorns on the trunk? We were snipping big bunches of berries off some wild ones today and I found out that there were nice thorns on the trunks. I assume we were picking elderberries as I have been checking these out for weeks now and comparing them to pictures and videos on line. I had never heard of thorns on the trunks or what ever you call it. They were kind of tall, about 6-10 feet. We would pull them down and hubby would snip while I held it down. Got stuck a couple of times.

  67. 67kristine written on September 20th, 2015

    Hi Emily,

    Elderberry does NOT have thorns. It sounds like you may have a Hercule’s Club plant botanically known as Zanthoxylum clava-herculis. Green Deane has a write up about them here: http://www.eattheweeds.com/hercules-club-speak-softly-but/

  68. 68Ted written on September 27th, 2015

    Glad I found this ! I have Polk growing on my place, and was pretty sure thats what it was, but every story about Elderberry showed a closeup pic of the berries and I would waver thinking that it might be Elderberry.
    I think that is part of the confusion. Most of the examples i’ve seen online show them up close, so they look similar .
    Now I know that Elderberry has limbs, and grows taller. That helps !
    Thanks !

  69. 69Robbie written on October 13th, 2015

    I guess I’ll have to buy some.. your pictures have shown me that I have many,many Poke bushes!!! Thanks!

  70. 70Laura written on December 5th, 2015

    Thanks so much! Best site and pictures I found for identifying Elderberry. We have some Pokeberry near our house and was thinking maybe that was it because of pictures listed in Google image search of “Elderberry”. Thankful this site was here! 🙂

  71. 71Nicole written on February 26th, 2016

    Thank you so much for this article! I have one question: are there any poisonous look alikes for the Elderberry? We want to be able to harvest but are new to plant identification. Thank you so much

  72. 72Sondra written on May 18th, 2016

    The best comparison of elderberry to pokeberry I have seen. I really appreciate seeing the side-by-side pictures to help with identification. Thank you.

  73. 73 written on June 4th, 2016

    Just wanted to let you know after several years, I finally understand the difference between Polk and Elderberry. Thank you so much.

  74. 74Bruce written on August 13th, 2016

    Excellent article. I’ve known the difference between the two types of berries as long as I can remember. When I was young, my parents picked poke berry shoots and cooked them like asparagus. I also helped my parents pick elderberries from which my mother made delicious jelly. One day when I was about ten years old, I was playing in the fields with some friends. We came across some ripe elderberries. They said, “stay away, they are poisonous.” I said, “no they’re not”, and then I ate some. They were horrified, as they thought that I was going to die right in front of them. I’m still here, and still love elderberry jelly about sixty years later.

  75. 75 written on August 31st, 2016

    Thank you. Your page makes the difference between elderberry and pokeberry clear and obvious

  76. 76Kelly Ann written on August 31st, 2016

    That was SO VERY HELPFUL! Thank You! Thank You!
    I too have looked online all throughout the summer trying to find out if what is growing around me are Elderberries for sure. They are! We also have poke berries. I was also looking at the leaves early in spring and wasn’t sure if the plant was an Elderberry or another toxic/poisonous shrub. I took pictures of every part of my plant for comparison. There were several people telling me that Elderberries “don’t grow around these parts”. I am living in southeast Tx. I grew up in Illinois though and we picked them every year for Mom to make Elderberry jelly. That was over 40yrs ago though and I had long since forgotten exactly what the plants looked like.
    Can’t wait to go harvesting on the 4whlr because I have seen atleast 15 plants around our pastures! YAAAY!

  77. 77Kelly Ann written on August 31st, 2016

    The other shrub (before any flowers showed) I was comparing to was a poisonous Hemlock. To me, the plant leaves and stems looked very similar. Then the flowers showed up, still confusing..then green berries, now berries are ripe. My Elderberry plant is growing right next to a pokeberry plant too.

  78. 78Amy written on September 1st, 2016

    Thanks so much!! Very helpful 🙂

  79. 79Joanna written on September 18th, 2016

    Thank you a million, now I know that my dog had a helping of elderberries straight of the bush. I can relax.
    Very informative.

  80. 80Christine written on September 20th, 2016

    After viewing your helpful pictures of elderberry shrubs I now know that what was growing in my yard was a poke berry. Thought I could make jam finally. Don’t think so… Cones are long not umbrella like. This was very helpful and I was going to plant this closer to garden.. Thanks.

  81. 81Anneliese Muller written on September 25th, 2016

    I have a shrub (lots actually) and I have been told that I have RED elderberry. Is that an actual thing? It is identical to the listed description of elderberry and the photos match perfectly, except the berries are in fact red and never get black but otherwise is the same. Is there a red elderberry and are it’s uses the same as the black?

  82. 82Judi written on October 12th, 2016

    What a blessing your website is! I thought I had elderberries and was already to make some tincture and syrup. Phew, realize now they are poke berries.

  83. 83Hung Chau written on November 20th, 2016

    Thanks a lot for your website. It is very helpful for me since, I have quite a few Poke berry in my back yard. I want to learn more about these Poke Weed and their uses. Would you have any information or experiences about them that I can follow or learn from? I will definitely appreciate your help in that matter.

    Hung Chau

  84. 84Betty Garner written on January 1st, 2017

    This was very interesting, but I was looking for pokesalit they are something like musterd or turnip greens, I could eat my weight in them. But thanks this was very enlightening.

    Thanks again, Betty Garner

  85. 85Jaimie written on March 25th, 2017

    I have had sime of these plants growing around and I was confused as to which one it was. This article teally helped determine what the plant actually is. Thank you for the time and effort you put into this. It really is helpful and maybe now i can feel good that I have taken them out of the back yard. It was definitely pokeberry. I wouldnt want to risk having it in my yard since I have a son. He is old enough to understand now, but he wasnt 6 years ago.

  86. 86 written on February 11th, 2018

    Thank you for the wonderful description and photos. I am in Texas (Houston) and cut berries off of a small tree hanging over a fence last weekend. My intent was to boil them down and make elderberry syrup. Something told me, ‘you better look on the internet and make sure before consuming the syrup’. The berries I cut look exactly as your photos of elderberry but I remember the small tree having darker colored leathery leaves. Could this be a domesticated version of the wild elderberry? It is definitely not poke berry. Is there anything else resembling elderberry that would be poisonous, do you know? Thank you, Kelly

  87. 87KristineBrown written on February 11th, 2018

    Hi Kelly,

    There are several species of Elderberry so it could be another species. Domesticated and wild Elder typically look very similar. I am not familiar with what grows in Texas so I can’t answer your question about any lookalikes in your area. What is the leaf patterning, is it the same as the ones in the pictures here? How does the bark on the trunk look?

  88. 88Chris Steinberg written on September 4th, 2018

    I have folks who confuse them with the Virginia Creeper berries which are also toxic to humans.

  89. 89Kat written on September 25th, 2018

    Thank you for actually posting images and a written explanation instead of videos! I can’t stand it when the only way to get info is from a video. They take time to load, use up even more RAM since I use old hand-me-down computers, and take way longer to get through than just reading text.

    Also, your explanations are clear. Two thumbs up!

Pokeweed’s berries are poisonous to humans, but birds love them | Lexington Herald Leader

All parts of pokeweed are poisonous to humans and their pets, but not to wildlife. MCT

Pokeweed is not exactly a garden lover’s favorite plant, but the birds will send you a nice thank-you chirp if you find some corner where it can grow.

Most gardeners don’t want pokeweed, in part because of the thick, woody root on mature plants, but it can be quite beautiful and charming, according to Helen Hamilton, president of the John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. It grows more than 5 feet tall and branches almost as wide, and its reddish stems carry loose columns of small white or pinkish flowers from July to September. In late summer, drooping clusters bear glossy purple-black berries.

Preferring moist soil, pokeweed, or Phytolacca americana, is found in damp thickets, clearings and roadsides in most states.

If you have curious children or pets, beware, because all parts of this plant are poisonous, especially the roots, seeds and mature stems and leaves. The young, tender leaves can be eaten, but only as thoroughly cooked greens, with two changes of water.

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Native Americans found many medicinal uses for the plant, and many folk remedies make use of parts of the plant, Hamilton said. The berry juice was used as a dye by colonists and to improve cheap wine.

Songbirds, foxes, raccoons and opossums eat the berries, apparently immune to the toxic chemicals. Animals help distribute the seeds far and wide. Pokeweed is deer- resistant; the foliage and stems are somewhat toxic and bitter, particularly when mature.

The plant contains a highly toxic chemical that is being investigated for anticancer and anti-HIV potential, Hamilton said.

Learn more about native plants at KNPS.org.

Pokeweed is at its most beautiful in early autumn. It is also at its most toxic. From its lovely purple-black berries to the very tip of its stout, white taproot, the plant is poison.

Consequently, it may seem strange that pokeweed is avidly sought out as a wild edible. Songs have been written extolling pokeweed’s virtues. In fact, no less than Elvis Presley and Tom Jones covered Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” — a song about more than just eating poke salad. I only hope Annie was harvesting and cooking her greens in the early spring.

At the point when its shoots are only a few inches tall, pokeweed can be harvested and boiled to make a basic cooked vegetable. But as the plant matures, the three-inch shoots grow to a towering, treelike plant with spreading bright magenta stems. These you do not want to eat.

Birds seem to be immune to these toxins. In fact, pokeweed is an important food source for myriad songbirds, including cardinals, catbirds and mockingbirds. Smaller mammals like white-footed mice and even raccoons and opossums seem to suffer no ill effects from eating the luscious-looking berries. Even the very beautiful giant leopard moth’s bristly caterpillar feeds on this plant, probably sequestering the plant’s toxins for its own protection. Humans who eat any part of mature pokeweed may experience violent cramping, difficulty breathing, and eventual death by asphyxiation. To some, there’s a thrill in eating pokeweed — it’s the vegetable equivalent of fugu, the famously toxic Japanese blowfish.

George WeigelRipe fruits of pokeweed.

Q: We seem to have an unusually large crop of pokeberry weeds in our yard this year. A landscaper who does some work for us told me that these weeds are poisonous to humans. Now I am wondering about the best way to pull them out (wearing gloves of course!) and whether even the gloves are adequate protection.

A: Some people actually like this almost-tree-like wild plant that gets dark reddish-purple berries later in summer. I’m not one of them. The fruited plants look nice, and birds eat the fruits, but pokeweed has too many down sides that cancel out the plusses.

Your landscaper hit on the biggest one. The roots, stems and leaves are toxic when eaten, and so are the berries, although they’re actually the least toxic part. One study found you’d have to eat about 45 pounds of pokeberries to die.

Depending on how much you’d eat of what parts, you or curious visitors (kids? pets?) are open to neurological reactions, including convulsions, muscle spasms, rapid pulse, low blood pressure and more.

Pokeweed isn’t considered to be a broad skin allergen, certainly nothing like poison ivy. However, some people are sensitive to the sap and have reported rashes after handling pokeweed. Unless you know you’re not one of those people, it would be a good precaution to wear rubber gloves. So long as protective clothing keeps the plant from rubbing up against your skin, you’ll head off the threat of a rash.

The complaint I hear most about pokeweed is that birds eat the fruits and then poop all over outdoor furniture, patios, railings, etc., leaving purple stains.

Pokeweed spreads readily by seed, so it’s fairly invasive — especially if you don’t pull them when young. Once they get growing, the plant puts out a deep tap root that makes it hard to pull. Rip off just the top and the plant usually responds by pushing out new growth.

I’ve seen more of it this year, too. I’m assuming the regular rain and warm weather we’ve had most of this spring has been perfect for seed germination.

Besides pulling and digging (the younger the better… both you and the pokeweeds), you could also spray pokeweeds with an herbicide, such as the non-selective glyphosate (i.e. Roundup) or one of the many broad-leaf weed-killers (just check the label to make sure pokeweed is included).

Vinegar, boiling water, a propane flame weeder and new liquid weed-killers with chelated iron are “organic” options

How did the toxic poke sallet plant become a Southern staple?

I’ve never eaten poke salad … that I know of. I spent most of my first 11 years playing in the woods behind our modest home in central Georgia, yet I can’t recall ever seeing the odd-looking plant with its purple berries and stalks, much less having it served up on a dinner plate.

I’ve been accused by some friends of being “city folk,” despite growing up in a small town, simply because I have never picked cotton, a distinction I suspect is very much akin to “never eaten poke salad.” Those two indelibly southern things, picking cotton and eating the toxic weed known as poke salad, were reserved largely for the rural and the poor. I knew poke salad – which is my preferred spelling although it is also written pokeweed, poke sallet, poke salat, polk salad, among others – required several boilings to remove poisons before it could be eaten, and I’ve wondered, “Why would anyone eat a poisonous plant?”

Through war and Depression

Poke salad was eaten widely in the South and Southern Appalachians during and after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, when many people had no food on their tables. When cooked, it is similar to spinach in consistency. South Carolina cook Dori Sanders, author of “Dori Sanders’ Southern Cooking,” even makes quiche with the greens.

In 2008, a teacher shows Alabama elementary school students a pokeweed plant.AL.com File Photo

In the book “Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing,” Sanders is quoted as saying poor people realized the greens were free and found a way to cook them. “You can’t fill your belly with anything that costs less money than a pot of free poke,” she said. “A lot of us were raised poor on the farm. We ate poke out of necessity back then. We can afford store-bought greens now but we still come back for another plate of poke. Why? Because it connects us with our past.

Songs and festivals

Despite its limitations and the time and effort required to prepare it, poke salad is important enough to Southern culture to be immortalized in more than one song – most famously Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie,” which was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The lyrics are, in part:

“Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods, and the fields
And it looks somethin’ like a turnip green
Everybody calls it polk salad
Now that’s polk salad
Used to know a girl lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and
Pick her a mess of it
Carry it home and cook it for supper
Because that’s about all they had to eat
But they did all right.”

Southerners also celebrate the plant with festivals, including the Poke Salad Festival in Blanchard, Louisiana, each May; Poke Salat Festival in Arab, Alabama, each May; the Poke Sallet Festival in Gainsboro, Tennessee, in May; and the East Tennessee Poke Salad Festival in Rockwood in June. And in Athens, Alabama, the senior center hosts the annual Poke Sallet Follies, a fundraising variety show in which local officials perform skits and spoofs.

It really can make you sick … and it may make you well

Alabama author Rick Bragg explains in his latest book, “The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table,” that the stories about the dangers of poke salad were well documented: “Historically, there has been no modern-day epidemic of fatal poke salad poisonings in the American South, but the danger was not just some rural legend and folklore, either. In the nineteenth century, children routinely became sick and some even died from eating the berries … Those who ingested the improperly cooked plant would foam at the mouth and suffer severe cramps. Their hearts would hammer in their chests, and then they would convulse and be unable to breathe.”

Rick Bragg and his mother, Margaret Bundrum Bragg.Terry Manier/AL.com File Photo

But, he said, poke salad became a staple for the poor out of necessity; it was plentiful and often there was nothing else to eat. So over time, Southern cooks learned to repeatedly rinse and boil the leaves of the plant – tossing out the water between rinsings and boilings – to make it safe to eat. At the end of the process, “If the water still has a green color, you have not done it right. Some people skimp on this, God rest their souls,” Bragg writes.

Leaves of the pokeweed.AL.com File

Only the experienced should handle the plant, which should be picked only in spring when it has fewer toxins and while wearing gloves for those who may be sensitive to it in its raw form.

So why bother with it at all? Because it provided much-needed nutrients for the rural poor, and many felt it had healing properties.

Bragg quotes his mother, Margaret: “… everything that’s good about spinach is in poke salad. Poke salad is good food … Poke salad is a miracle … Poke salad is medicine.” Bragg says it contains a variety of important vitamins, as well as beta carotene, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, magnesium and more.

Still, when Bragg asked his octogenarian mother if she would trust poke salad served at someone else’s table to not poison her, she replied she probably wouldn’t, “but it would be nice to be offered.”

After surviving more than half a century without eating this strange and rather frightening plant, I think I’ll wait another 50 before trying it … unless Rick Bragg’s mother has prepared it. Until then, it will remain a Southern myth, legend and icon.

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Pokeweed Family (Phytolaccaceae)

Other Names:

Origin and Distribution:

Common pokeweed is native to the eastern half of the U.S. The distribution of this species has not been mapped in Ohio, but it appears to be widespread and is continuing to invade reduced-tillage fields. Common pokeweed prefers low, rich, somewhat disturbed, gravelly soils, and can be found in pastures, roadsides, fencerows, open woods and wood borders.

Plant Description:

Common pokeweed is a large, bushy, herbaceous perennial that sometimes resembles a small tree, growing up to 10 feet in height. It is characterized by an enormous taproot, smooth succulent red-purple stems, large lance-shaped leaves and grape-like clusters of dark purple berries in the fall. This species reproduces from seeds.

  • Root System:

    Common pokeweed produces a large, fleshy, white taproot (4 to 6 inches in diameter).

  • Seedlings and Shoots:

    Cotyledons are egg- to lance-shaped, pointed and often tinged with red on the underside and on the leaf stalk. The first true leaves are egg-shaped to oval. Stems and leaves of young shoots are smooth, fleshy and reddish (on leaf, underside only).

  • Stems:

    Stems can grow 3 to 7 feet tall (sometimes up to 10 feet), and several may emerge from one taproot. The smooth, fleshy, thick stems are typically reddish to deep red-purple, and are branched in the upper portion. Stems can attain a diameter of 4 inches and are usually hollow.

  • Leaves:

    The large, alternately arranged leaves are smooth, fleshy and shiny. Leaves are elliptical to egg-shaped, tapering to a point at one end and into a long leaf stalk (1/3 to 2 inches long) at the other. Leaves range from 5 to 20 inches long, and are usually 1/3 as wide as they are long. The upper leaf surface is dark green, while the lower surface is pinkish-green with conspicuous pink veins. Leaves become smaller toward the top of the plant.

  • Flowers:

    Whitish-green flowers are produced in long, narrow, unbranched, erect to nodding clusters (4 to 8 inches long) at the ends of stems and upper branches. Each flower in the cluster is borne on an individual flower stalk. Flowers are 1/4 inch wide and composed of 5 petal-like, rounded sepals (floral leaves; flowers lack true petals). The flower cluster often occurs opposite a leaf.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    Each flower develops into an 8- to 10-chambered, shiny, juicy berry (1/4 inch wide), with 1 seed per chamber. Berries are flattened, round in outline, and initially green, becoming black-purple at maturity. As the fruit ripens, the clusters become heavy and drooping, resembling a grape bunch, and the stems holding the berries turn a bright red-purple. Ripe berries are filled with crimson juice. Seeds are 1/8 inch wide, lens-shaped, black and shiny.


Common pokeweed seedlings emerge from mid-spring to early summer, and shoots emerge from previously established roots in the spring. Flowers are produced from July to September. Pokeweed seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to 40 years. Birds commonly eat pokeweed berries without adverse reactions and are probably an important means for distributing this species.

This poisonous weed is often found in pastures, fencerows and barnyards, in unfortunately close proximity to livestock, and is becoming an increasing problem in no-tillage crops. To control a few scattered plants, cutting below the root crown is effective (digging up the large taproot is very difficult). For larger infestations, growing a cultivated crop for 1 to 2 years will help reduce common pokeweed populations.


All parts of common pokeweed are toxic to humans, pets and livestock. Roots are the most poisonous, leaves and stems are intermediate in toxicity (toxicity increases with maturity), and berries are the least toxic. Since common pokeweed is not very palatable, most animals avoid eating it unless little else is available, or if it is in contaminated hay. Horses, sheep and cattle have been poisoned by eating fresh leaves or green fodder, and pigs have been poisoned by eating the roots. Children are most frequently poisoned by eating raw berries. Infants are especially sensitive and have died from eating only a few raw berries. Although boiled young shoots have been eaten as greens and berries cooked in pie, ingestion of any part of the plant cannot be recommended. Adults have been poisoned, sometimes fatally, by eating improperly prepared leaves and shoots, especially if part of the root is harvested with the shoot, and by mistaking the root for an edible tuber. Research with humans has also shown that common pokeweed can cause mutations (possibly leading to cancer) and birth defects. Since the juice of pokeweed can be absorbed through the skin, contact of plant parts with bare skin should be avoided. Symptoms of poisoning from common pokeweed include a burning sensation in the mouth, salivation, gastrointestinal cramps, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Most people and animals recover within 1 to 2 days if only small quantities are eaten. If large quantities are consumed, more severe symptoms can occur, such as anemia, altered heart rate and respiration, convulsions and death from respiratory failure. The primary toxic compounds are thought to be oxalic acid, saponins (phytolaccotoxin and phytolaccigenin) and an alkaloid (phytolaccin).

Facts and Folklore:

  • The common name ‘pokeweed’ originates from the Native American word for ‘blood’, referring to the red dye that can be made from the fruit (however, the color is difficult to fix). Some of the other common names, such as ‘inkberry’ and ‘inkweed’, refer to this use.

  • Juice from pokeweed berries was once used to ‘improve’ the color of cheap red wine.

  • Supporters of President James Polk wore pokeweed twigs instead of campaign buttons during the 1845 campaign.

  • Medical researchers have isolated a protein (pokeweed antiviral protein or PAP) from pokeweed that is being used to try to inhibit the replication of the HIV virus in human cells.

  • Roots, leaves and berries of common pokeweed were used medicinally by Native Americans and early settlers to treat a variety of conditions from hemorrhoids to headaches.

  • The young shoots and leaves of pokeweed have been eaten as greens (‘poke sallet’), boiled with the water changed several times prior to consumption. The taste is described as similar to that of asparagus or spinach. Berries have been used to make pie. However, ingestion of any part of common pokeweed cannot be recommended.

Pokeweed: The Weed, the Myth, the Legend

This article on pokeweed is part of a series on weed gardens and identifying and using the plants you’ll often find there. For other articles in the series, please . Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a milestone plant for many foragers. It’s the first plant that many of us eat that could also kill us. Don’t get me wrong. Correctly prepared, pokeweed is absolutely safe. It’s also highly nutritious and delicious. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t feel at least a little trepidation when cooking and eating it for the first time.

Pokeweed = Poison?

My most vivid memory of pokeweed isn’t from painting with the berries as a child, or from the smell coming from the boiling pot in my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s from just last year. Our (then) 2-year-old came up to me with a big purple-stained grin on his face. “Have you been eating elderberries again?” I asked him. He shook his head and led me to a tall pokeweed plant. I saw that berries were missing. Lots of them. One of us might have said a swear word. I’ll let you guess who. It’s funny how panic will totally wreck your ability to think. My mind was racing to recall everything I knew about pokeweed, but all I was getting was the word “poison.” I took several slow, deep breaths to calm myself. Gradually, my brain started to work again. The berry is the least poisonous part of the plant. The juice from the berry is safe. It’s the seed that’s poisonous 1) http://www.eattheweeds.com/can-be-deadly-but-oh-so-delicious-pokeweed-2. The seeds are designed to pass safely through the digestive tract so that the plant can spread. So unless he chewed up the seeds, any poisons would likely remain safely locked away. And at this age, our boy was more of a gulper than a chewer. My wife and I decided to wait and see if any symptoms developed. As it turned out, he was fine. He never had any problems with the pokeberries at all. That day, two things happened:

  1. One was that I cut down all of the pokeweed plants in our yard.
  2. The other was that I became skeptical of the oft-repeated claims of 10 berries (or even 1 berry 2)The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide: The Safe Way to Use Medication and Supplements Together. George T. Grossberg M.D., and Barry Fox. Publisher: Harmony. 2008.) being enough to poison a child.

One study tried to determine the lethal dose of pokeberries for mice. What the researchers found was that it was impossible to give the mice a large enough dose to kill them. After three doses, one per hour, of as much as the mice’s bellies could hold, some finally died. The equivalent amount for an adult, male human would be about 45 pounds (20 kilograms).3) Just for the record, 45 pounds of water would also kill an adult, male human.4)http://www.nleomf.org/officers/search/search-results/james-c-mcbride.html Of course I wouldn’t recommend you eat a big bowlful of the berries. Humans may not be very much like mice. But this study does give credence to some people’s claims of having eaten pokeberry pie.

Let’s Eat Some Pokeweed!

Our grandparents would have thought all this caution and fear was far overblown. For them, pokeweed was a mundane food—a staple of spring. But at some point that familiarity with our wild, native plants began to dwindle, and now pokeweed is something of a daredevil food for aspiring foragers. Let’s take back our horticultural heritage and eat some pokeweed (after preparing it correctly, of course). This video should help: https://youtu.be/Reg3kuWTIDg

Plant Identification

Adult plants are the easiest to identify, so let’s start there. Mature pokeweed (also called poke salad, poke sallet, pokeberry, and others) stands 5–10 feet (1.5–3 meters) tall. The leaves are alternate,5)Alternate: A leaf pattern in which leaves appear back and forth or in a spiraling pattern on a stem. large (4–10 inches or 10–25 centimeters), toothless, oval- or lance-shaped, fairly succulent, somewhat wavy along the edges, and prominently veined. They also make a neat, rubbery sound when you rub a handful of them together.

The flowers are white, pink, or green; grow on a pink stem; and form a drooping, finger-shaped cluster. Flowers appear in spring through summer and turn into glossy, deep purple-to-black berries toward the end of summer and into fall. The berries are about the size of a pea and are flattened at the top and bottom. A mature pokeweed stem is red or magenta, darker near the base, and has a mostly hollow core. Pokeweed has a perennial root, with the aboveground parts dying back every winter. The dead stalk can remain through the winter and are one of the easiest ways for beginners to safely ID young plants. Mark the location of a dead stalk and come back in the spring to harvest the new stalks growing where it stood. Once you do this several times, you’ll start to recognize the young leaves by sight even without the older stalk to give it away.


Overall, the mature plant is very easy to identify, though it might be confused with elderberry. Elderberry does not have alternate leaves, and the berries grow in an umbel,6)Umbel: A flat, disk-shaped or umbrella-shaped cluster of flower. rather than a spike. The berry clusters resemble wild cherries, though cherries don’t have that garish stem color, their leaves are toothed, and they grow on a tree. Some people say that pokeweed is a grape lookalike. I don’t see it, myself. But if you’re having trouble, remember that grapes grow on a vine. Pokeweed does not.

Where to Find Pokeweed

Pokeweed is native to the U.S., growing throughout most of the contiguous states, except for in the Rocky Mountain States and North and South Dakota. It can also be found in the eastern provinces of Canada and has been naturalized in the Mediterranean region. It prefers damp woodlands and open area. Birds help spread the seeds in their droppings, as well. You can often find pokeweed shoots beneath popular perches. Try fence rows.

Harvesting Pokeweed

The conventional wisdom is to harvest leaves and stems from young plants, no more than 6-10 inches (15-25 centimeters) tall.7)Peterson Field Guides. Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America. Lee Allen Peterson.

Berries can be harvested whenever they are ripe, from summer into fall. I do not recommend harvesting the root, as it contains the highest concentration of poison. (However, those who do opt to take the risk typically harvest the root in the fall, after the main stalk has died back.) Some people harvest from taller plants, even taking the newer growth from mature pokeweed. Depending on your level of sensitivity to the plant and your level of experience, this might or might not be a good idea.

The Pokeweed Boogeyman

And this would probably be a good time to talk about the pokeweed boogeyman. In my opinion, the poisonous nature of pokeweed has been exaggerated. People tend to repeat warnings about poisonous plants without verifying them. This can cause errors or exaggerations to be perpetuated until they assume the rank of “fact.” This seems to be what has happened with pokeweed.8) Don’t misunderstand me. Pokeweed is poisonous and has killed people. You have to respect it, and you have to use it correctly. But the level of fear exceeds the reality.9)Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria. Stephen Harrod Buhner. Storey Publishing, LLC. 2012. To further muddy the waters, some people are more sensitive to the toxins in pokeweed than others.

  • For example, the plant juice causes dermatitis in some people (like my wife) and not in others (like myself).
  • Some people get a stomachache if they boil the leaves only once, while others may have no ill effects and always boil once.
  • I’ve even seen a man claim that he saved the cooking water for use in soups. That one’s a bit much for me, but you can see how the claims of pokeweed’s relative toxicity might get confused.

A Common-Sense Caution

So what’s a forager to do? Go slowly. Just cook a little bit your first time, and use one of the longer boiling methods described below. The next time, you can cook more. Just use your own wisdom, listen to your body, and don’t do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. In all likelihood, you’ll be fixin’ a big mess of greens in no time.

Culinary Uses: Cooking and Eating Pokeweed

Nutritionally, pokeweed is a powerhouse plant. It’s a dynamite source of vitamins A and C, and a good source of calcium and iron, too.10)http://www.eattheweeds.com/can-be-deadly-but-oh-so-delicious-pokeweed-2 But how do you get to that nutrition without poisoning yourself? Poke leaves are boiled before eating. Opinions differ as to how long they must be boiled and in how many changes of water. This is how I do it:

  1. Boil the leaves for 1 minute.
  2. Pour out the water and bring new water to a boil.
  3. Now boil the leaves for another full minute.
  4. Change out the water and boil for 15 minutes.

The whole process looks like this: Boil 1 minute –> Change water –> Boil 1 minute –> Change water –> Boil 15 minutes Remember, your timer doesn’t start until the water reaches a full boil. You can keep a second pot of water boiling so that you don’t have to wait for the water to heat up every time. If you want to err on the cautious side, you can always boil it longer. Two boils of 15 minutes each, or three boils of 10 minutes each, are common cooking protocols. Serve with salt, pepper, and butter. Some people like to add vinegar or olive oil, as well. I like to add a pinch of brown sugar. My way isn’t the healthiest, but it gets the kids to eat it. Another popular option is to toss the cooked pokeweed into a pan and scramble it with eggs. I like to add barbecue sauce. (Try it, then tell me if I’m crazy!) Young shoots can be peeled, breaded in cornmeal, and fried. Some people boil them first, but many (including myself) don’t. Another option is to boil and then pickle the stalks. I’ve never tried this one, but it sounds tasty.

Medicinal Uses: Properties and Contraindications

Used correctly, pokeweed is a powerful medicinal plant. However, the margins of safety are smaller than with most popular herbs. The berry is the safest part of the plant to use medicinally. The root, while a very powerful medicine, is also the most poisonous. Use caution, and get in touch with an experienced herbalist before experimenting with it yourself. Pokeweed has a wide variety of medicinal uses, both traditional and modern. Most of these likely stem from its antiviral, lymphatic, and anti-inflammatory properties.


Pokeweed has terrifically potent antiviral properties against a wide range of viruses, including SARS and coronavirus. Pokeweed is a powerful lymphatic-system stimulant, helping to prevent cytokine storms.11)Cytokine Storm: A potentially fatal, hyper-inflammatory, immune response often linked to certain viruses. Isolated compounds from the pokeweed plant have even been used to inactivate the HIV virus in rats, rendering them HIV-negative.12)Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. Stephen Harrod Buhner. Storey Publishing, LLC. 2013. That’s a lot of antiviral potential. Pokeweed is also strongly anti-inflammatory, and has a long history as an arthritis herb.13)Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: The Definitive Home Reference Guide to 550 Key Herbs with all their Uses as Remedies for Common Ailments. Andrew Chevallier. DK Adult. 2000. Some people take 1 berry a day to ease their symptoms. Others use the root in powder or tincture14)Tincture: A preparation in herbal medicine wherein the medicinal components of a plant are pulled into a solution of alcohol, vinegar, or glycerin and administered by dropper. form. One suggested dose of root powder is 60–100 milligrams.15)The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide: The Safe Way to Use Medication and Supplements Together. George T. Grossberg M.D., and Barry Fox. Publisher: Harmony. 2008. A 1:5 tincture of the dried root in 50% alcohol has also been suggested with a dose of 5–15 drops up to 3 times a day.16)Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria. Stephen Harrod Buhner. Storey Publishing, LLC. 2012. Again, use caution and seek a trained expert before putting any of this into your body.

Pokeweed has the potential to interact with drugs that have sedative properties. Possible side effects include lowered blood pressure, confusion, weakness, blurred vision, nausea, difficulty breathing, and death.17)The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide: The Safe Way to Use Medication and Supplements Together. George T. Grossberg M.D., and Barry Fox. Publisher: Harmony. 2008. Pregnant women should not use pokeweed.18)Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: The Definitive Home Reference Guide to 550 Key Herbs with all their Uses as Remedies for Common Ailments. Andrew Chevallier. DK Adult. 2000. If you’re looking for similar effects from safer plants, try skullcap or cleavers as alternatives.19)Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. Stephen Harrod Buhner. Storey Publishing, LLC. 2013. Red root also has some similar properties, though it has safety issues, as well. Hopefully I’ve scared you just the right amount—not so much that I scared you away, but not so little that you jump in with abandon. Pokeweed is a powerful, nutritious, delicious plant that is safe when it’s given proper respect, and dangerous when it’s not. What are your experiences with pokeweed? Were they good or bad? Have any of you every tried pokeberry pie and lived to tell the tale? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments.

This article was originally published on April 24, 2018.

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Scott Sexton is a TGN Trailblazer, a highly experimental gardener, an unrelenting weed-eater, and a largely non-profit herbalist (much to his wife’s chagrin). When Scott is not teaching foraging classes, testing out theories in the garden, or grazing in the forest, he can be found at his Facebook page, “A Forager’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.”


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