By: Michael Hetzer
Some of you may remember a 1968 hit song by Tony Joe White called “Polk Salad Annie” which describes a poor southern girl who cooked polk salad every day, while her father laid around, her brothers stole water melons, her mother worked on the chain gang and whose granny was eaten by a gator. That polk salad was made from a large perennial plant called pokeweed.
For me one person’s weed is another person’s delicious edible. A couple of invasive weeds that come to mind are dandelion, purslane and garlic mustard. Then there are the woody invasives like buckthorn, prickly ash, honeysuckle and Russian olive. (Although I would put poison ivy in this group, many people don’t.) A plant that seems to straddle both these groups is poke weed. It is very invasive, hard to eradicate and steeped in legend.
Pokeweed, polk salad or poke salet is a plant that has recently started appearing on my property near Waunakee, Wisconsin . It is a tall (4-6 feet) thick plant with long branches, single leaves and long white drooping flower stems that turn into beautiful dark purple berries. It has a large tuber for a root and it appears to kill any other vegetation that grows around it. My latest attempt to eliminate it was to cut it off at the base and pour a pot of boiling water on it. This has failed. I will next try my butane torch on the cut stem.
I know of a few people in northern Wisconsin that claim to cook and enjoy the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) which contains monomethylhydrazine (MMH). MMH accumulates in the body and eventually causes total organ failure, so I’m not totally surprised that people do eat pokeweed. You have to be pretty hungry to want to eat a something that you have to boil and rinse two or three times before you get something that tastes like spinach, which you then cook in bacon grease in order to make it palatable. A good portion of the southern United States does enjoy this. The plant is usually gathered in the springtime, but if you are having a craving for pokeweed, it is also canned and sold commercially (or it used to be.)
Nothing of this plant is edible; it is completely and entirely poisonous. While the berries are enjoyed by some birds, the attractive berries could be deadly poisonous to a small child. There are several known toxins in pokeweed. It contains a saponin compound which causes the frothing when the plant is boiled. Saponins in water will kill fish and some people have an allergic reaction to it if they get it on their skin. There is also a protein which acts as a lectin and will destroy red and white blood cells. Ricin which is derived from the castor plant is another example of a lectin. Medicinal use of pokeweed has a long history without much if any benefit to human well being.
Although pokeweed is an interesting and somewhat pretty plant it really has no place on my property. Anyone with this plant in their garden runs the risk of a child or pet dying from consumption of any raw part of it. (Yes; horses, cows, pigs and goats and have died from eating pokeweed.) It is very invasive and your neighbors probably wouldn’t want it spreading from your property to theirs. I for one will be attempting to remove and destroy pokeweed whenever I encounter it.