A whole lot about pokeweed

To eat or not to eat?

<i>Phytolacca americana</i>

Phytolacca americana

To pull or not to pull?
A CN&R reader wrote me a letter (an actual letter, which I truly appreciate) recently, saying how much he enjoyed Claire Hutkins Seda’s May 23 Greenways feature, “Before you pull it,” on useful weeds. He went on to list a number of other wild, weedy plants for consideration as useful plants, including chicory, acorns and purslane.

One plant on his list—pokeweed—took me by surprise, as I have considered it invasive and poisonous, and have sought to eradicate it from my yard year after year as soon as the prolific plant starts to pop up.

“When young and green, it’s delicious,” said this reader. “When color appears, its usefulness wanes, although the still-green tops are good until berries start to form.”

According to EattheWeeds.com, pokeweed is edible and has been eaten for quite some time, particularly in the Southern United States, where cans of Allen’s Poke Salet Greens were sold until the spring of 2000 (apparently, there were not enough people interested in picking pokeweed for Allen’s, says the website of the demise of mass-produced, canned pokeweed).

But, “if prepared incorrectly or carelessly it can make you quite ill, or worse, put a ‘k’ in front of ill as in kill you,” says the EattheWeeds site. “But when picked and prepared properly, as millions have done over the centuries, it is perhaps the most delicious pot herb of all, one that makes you look forward to next season.” (A “pot herb,” I learned from TheFreeDictionary.com, is “A plant whose leaves, stems, or flowers are cooked and eaten or used as seasoning.”)

<i>Phytolacca americana</i>

EattheWeeds.com goes on to say that one should “never eat the seeds or the root [of the pokeweed plant]. Accidental poisonings have happened by people getting a little root with the shoot. And never eat a mature pokeweed. What’s mature? For safety, I would consider any pokeweed over 7 inches mature and off-limits. And/or any pokeweed with deep red stems, no matter how short it is.”

I asked Dan Efseaff, the city of Chico’s parks and natural resources manager (and an opponent of invasive plants) to weigh in:

“We have a very active progam against common pokeweed (Phytolacca americana),” wrote Efseaff in an email. “It is a shade-tolerant perennial … and thrives in deep, moist soils (and can dominate areas along creeks and rivers in California). Pokeweed is native to the eastern U.S.

“All parts of pokeweed are considered fatal to mammals (!),” he continued, “but not birds (who do most of the spreading of the seed). It supposedly has medicinal values and can be used for food, but I always see the warning ‘must be specially prepared’ when authors mention those values (which makes me nervous about what you might need to do to make it right).

“I have not looked at the toxicity in depth, but it makes me nervous about noting the edible aspects of it without the cautions and the potential for poisoning (i.e., ‘Sure, it’s a cheap substitute for asparagus, but it also can kill you’ … or ‘It can clear up itching, but the convulsions and potential for death also take your mind off the itching, too.’” (Efseaff including a smiley-face icon at this point.)

For more info on pokeweed, go to www.tinyurl.com/pokesaletweed and read the invasive-plant profile of American pokeweed in the fall 2012 issue of the city Park Division’s quarterly newsletter.

Go to EattheWeeds.com and search “pokeweed” to read (a lot) more about the “prime potherb.”