Pokeweed Seed — Urban Scavenging Part II
What began as physical exercise is now a full-blown neurosis — a habit of surveying man-made landscapes from a pedestrian vantage point, observing intersections of nature and human attempts to wrest control.
This summer my daily walks have turned up many things, or I should say, many plants. The most curious among them has been American Poke Weed (Phytolaccaceae) otherwise known as Poke Sallet or Salad, or Poke Berry. It appears to have invaded my northwest Indiana city.
I have been taking pictures of this popular plant for a couple of months since everywhere I walk I see it growing and thriving. I see it on the edges of intentional landscapes, which is surprising when I consider how committed my neighbors tend to be to weedless environs. I have also seen Poke in abandoned lots and alleyways. In short, the soft green leaves supported by a reddening stem is all over town, and birds — cardinals, catbirds, brown thrashers and Eastern Towhee — are the planters, for it is definitely food for these cultivators, according Mitch Robinson, a naturalist who studies them.
“I was always told the crows would get drunk on the berries and where the crows went the poke seed went” Turnip Green 28
Two summers ago, there was a patch or two on the western side of our house, which must mean that the Northern variety can withstand blistering heat. Despite my efforts to eliminate the plant at its root, this year, I continue to see shoots appearing in my rock garden. I am hesitant to touch the leaves, for I have just enough familiarity with the plant to know that some of its parts can be deadly to humans if not dealt with gingerly.
There are, however, still people living today who eat Poke Sallet. When I first began investigating the plant, I watched a dozen videos on YouTube. The wisdom regarding preparation for the plant as food is that it has to be cooked at least twice, the first time to release the toxins, which are to be discarded with the pot liquor. Others remember eating the leaves cooked in a scramble of eggs, or even fried. I myself have never had Poke, but I have two stories that shed some light.
I’m from eastern Kentucky and we use polk in a salad. We cook it with Plantin, another (weed) that grows in yards, bottoms and fields. They are delicious together. Mickey Newsome
About twenty years ago, when I was living in North Carolina, I used to take an elderly friend to get groceries. One day, she asked me to take her to get some “turnip salad.” We drove out to the country (not a long drive since Nash County is largely rural). On a not-so-distinct road, we pulled off into a patch of greenery; she got out of the car and walked fifteen to twenty yards. I did not get out with her but wish now that I had. She carried with her a large paper sack and a knife. When she returned to the car, I didn’t ask to see what she had gathered, but I well remember how happy she was about whatever goody she was taking home. I’m doubtful that Turnip Salad and Poke Weed are one and the same, but whatever my friend cut that day it too was wild food.
My second connection to Sallet was made about five years ago when I attended a wildcrafting experience on a patch of land in Moscow, Tennessee. The leader of the experience identified for attendees a number of edible weeds and dangerous ones too. I made a journal full of notes, but what I recall best is the story the expert told of a black man in an Appalachian town he was visiting who sold Poke Sallet from the side of the road. The leader loved the folk roots of the food and even more so the art of the sign advertising the Poke.
While my experience in North Carolina is now two decades ago, the availability of Poke in the Tennessee mountains is not quite so distant. Still, I would have to say that today, in most places, eating Poke would be a delicacy, one not to be toyed with by novices like myself. I have been tempted to learn more about the plant, to maybe dry its root for a tea. The closest I have come to that was a purchase I made at a health food store in Jacksonville, Florida, where they had lots of dried herbs including Wild Lettuce and Poke. I have eaten wild lettuces. I have survived on them! I delight in their abundance, and they are tasty too.
Strangely, Poke has been up North all along since it is native to many Northern and Midwestern states. I definitely have failed to notice it over the years, or maybe our feathered friends have been sowing more of it up here lately. Whatever the case, I am intrigued by its profusion in such an urban setting. The plant speaks to me, saying “scarcity is but an illusion.” And the birds, well, must know no bounds. Clearly, this weed has been a staple in American kitchens from Ohio to Tennessee, from Oklahoma to Minnesota for centuries. Robinson explains that all food we know as human food always has been bird food. Ecology 101 I suppose. If not all humans today eat Poke, the plant nevertheless is essential to the survival of the birds who depend on it, and we, in turn, depend on their survival. Without the red berries of late summer Poke, Robinson explains, there would be no red cardinal.
“Pokeweed…feeds and brings liquid to 27 variet[ies] of Maryland birds.” Judy Goldblum
If you see it growing in your yard, then, let it be.
Disclaimer: This article does not advise consumption of Pokeweed.