Poke salat - truth vs myth

mollymcbee(PNW 8)March 20, 2006

There are lot of misconceptions about this plant, and a lot of unnecessary dire warnings about how toxic it is. I guess they figure it's easier to scare folks away than to educate them and count on them to do things the right way. How sad.

Here's the truth about poke salat - phytolacca americana.

Poke salat, when it matures, develops purple colorations on its stalk, flower stem, and berries and seeds. It is the MATURE leaves, and purple stem and seeds that contain the poisonous substances. Young plants are safe, as is the juice.

Young poke without any hint of purple makes an excellent dish of greens similar to spinach. It must be parboiled, then should drained well and added to a skillet and fried in butter or bacon drippings. It's a meal fit for a king.

Mountain folk often make a wine from the berries, claiming that a small glass each day helps relieve their arthritis symptoms. They also make a jelly, discarding the seeds. Many southern cities have festivals in honor of poke, and many websites contain lots of information.

Poke plants are spread far and wide by birds who gobble up the berries, then deposit the seeds for miles around. In fact, the seeds are difficult to germinate artifically because they prefer going through the acid in a digestive tract and then get frozen before they will sprout.

Poke root is a herbal remedy that has been used for millenia with excellent results, but can be poisonous when used incorrectly, as sometimes happens with someone who doesn't know what they are doing.

Poke salat has a place of honor in my garden, and in my kitchen.

Molly McBee

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ruthieg__tx(z8 TX)

I've never had it in my garden but I have eaten it and gathered it many many times...I grew up in the south and Poke salat was a welcome spring addition to our table...

    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 9:23AM
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Thanks for the informative post. I've heard people say it's edible, but I'd also heard people say it was poisonous and was rather confused. We have it growing all over the place.


    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 9:57AM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

The three most important things to remember are:
1. Pick poke early in the spring before it starts showing any purple, cutting the stalk a couple of inches above ground and well away from the root,
2. Parboil at least once and discard the water, and
3. DON'T EAT THE POKE ROOT, not even a tiny bit of it.

There are a lot of really good recipes on the internet for how to fix poke.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2006 at 10:40PM
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I've eaten it.
You can have it.
Give me a good mess of turnip or mustard greens, anyday.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2006 at 12:34PM
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I collect it every spring. I have read of the following but I have not done it. One reference says one can did up the root in the fall, stick it in a box of sand in a dark basement or closet and water it and it will grow edible white sprouts.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2006 at 4:59PM
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These recipes for poke remind me of that book on gathering wild edibles. His recipes too always involved a lot of butter or bacon - suspect that shredded cork if heavily buttered or baconed would have the same great flavor!
We used to cook dandeion greens and marsh marigolds each spring. But that was back when the nearest market was 10 miles away and we couldn't afford to buy greens. After a winter of canned vegetables, just about any fresh greenery tasted really terrific.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2006 at 12:56AM
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dghays(Z10A FL Brevard)

It supposedly has excellent nutritional qualities. I have Chaya, which is another poisonous plant which must be boiled, and then is safely edible. It also is 'killer' nutritionally. Also, shredded cork is great over a nice stiff pasta!


    Bookmark   April 15, 2006 at 9:01PM
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Poke salate, grows here in Mississippi, to the extent, some
put it in the freezer and have it the year around..i love it, when i cook it, i put some raw eggs in it, when its almost ready to take off the stove, these eggs will be like scrambled eggs in the poke..i love to put a bit of vinegar on it like pepper sauce when i eat..its wonderful and its so good for cleaning you out..better than any other greens i know of...patti

    Bookmark   April 30, 2006 at 12:21AM
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I Live in Scisciano (Naples - Italy). In my garden Phytolacca is very, very infestant! It is indestructible!
Excuse me, but I don't understand very well the English, so I ask you simple questions:
The berry juice cooked (without seeds) is edible?
Thank you in advance

    Bookmark   May 9, 2006 at 4:26PM
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How this takes me back to my childhood!! Growing up, our household included: Parents,Grandmother,Niece,and six children. My brother and I would go hunting after school and shoot rabbits or squirrels, and my Mom would bake them in a pot-pie with a crust on top. I would also be sent to the woods to pick Poke for our dinner. I only collected the youngest growth. My Mom or grandmom would then parboil it in two changes of water, and then serve it like spinach. My Mom died a few years ago at the age of 96, so I guess it didn't hurt her!.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2006 at 9:23PM
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I like to pick it young and eat it uncooked with a little bleu chease dressing.We have a plenty here in Ky.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2006 at 11:17PM
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The answer to your question is NO.
Only the young leaves and stems, before they begin to exhibit any red coloration, are considered safe, and even then, many people recommend at least one - if not several - changes of water while cooking in order to hopefully leach out and eliminate toxic alkaloids.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2006 at 1:08PM
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This is great info about poke salat--hope I get the courage to try it!

I have a question--I'm rescuing my garden now, which had gone to weeds for the past several years. In one raised bed there is a huge poke tuber, too big and woody for me to dig out. I"ve covered it in newspaper and weighted the paper down with rocks. Do you think that will kill it? Also, since the tuber is poisonous, is it safe to plant near it?



    Bookmark   June 20, 2006 at 11:58AM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

Poke roots are very sturdy and hardy - they love a challenge. That root will probably still live and poke through the paper and grow between the rocks.

If you decide to try digging it out, take care with the sap from the root as it is very poisonous and might be irritating to any skin it touches.

Planting other things near it won't hurt the other plants. The sap from the poke root won't travel into the other plants.


    Bookmark   June 23, 2006 at 5:08PM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

Poke salat raw is NOT a good thing where safety is concerned.

Parboiling and removes the saponins and other poisonous substances and makes it safe to eat.


    Bookmark   June 23, 2006 at 5:19PM
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beachcat(8 Fl Panhandle)

I was looking for Chaya plant starts, or Malabar spinach seeds. I am unfamiliar with this plant. What makes this plant taste so good that I would want to go through all the procedures to cook and eat this.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2007 at 4:19AM
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ruthieg__tx(z8 TX)

Reading this thread is so funny...I wonder too why we all couldn't wait for the poke salat in the spring time and who ever was the first to decide well if it is poisonious to eat. ...I'll just change the water a few times and see if if is still poison or if I'll still be around after eating it...My Mama is long passed now but she loved to go pick poke...

    Bookmark   May 2, 2007 at 5:39PM
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I just cooked some today. I did get some leaves off the bigger plants, but none of the purple stalks. I only boil it once, for about 50 minutes. Wash well and sqeeze out most of the liquid. Fry with fat back or streak o' lean meat for around 15 or 20 minutes, then add raw eggs and cook until they are done. I ate it and I'm still here. It didn't taste the same this year though.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 4:19PM
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I've eaten it too - just don't really care for it(too much like spinach to suit me), though fried up in some bacon grease... well, that sounds a lot better.
I've heard of folks chopping up the tender young stems(before they turn red) and sauteeing them in bacon grease or butter. That sounds even better than the greens!

    Bookmark   June 25, 2011 at 11:08AM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

This must be restated: poke is NOT safe until it has been boiled and rinsed, preferably at least three times. This includes new shoots and leaves, which contain the toxins in the sap.

Drain well and use as desired.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2011 at 12:23PM
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wertach zone 7-B SC

I have ate poke salat all my life, every year, and I am 57 now. My Dad died last August after 87 years and 8 months! When I cleaned out his freezer he had 23 bags of poke in it! I ate it this winter and I'm still kicking! The frozen was almost as good as fresh.

I picked it fresh this spring and it is so tasty! It doesn't have to be all greasy with bacon grease to taste good. I pair boil twice then add a little olive oil in the final cooking. I strain the leftovers and put them in the fridge. Then I throw them in a skillet without any extra oil, heat them up and add some eggs for a tasty breakfast!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2011 at 3:02PM
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I was just thinking about this yesterday. I never ate it though I knew you could but as a child I would get the berries and use them as war paint.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2012 at 12:24PM
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I want to disagree with one comment the OP made (ok, its been 6 years, I know) -- the comment about never eating any poke with purple pigmentation.

Perhaps the toxin is in the pigment, I don't know. I do know the pigmentation goes away upon cooking.

However, ALL of the poke that grows here is very purple from the get-go, the smallest sprouts are vibrant magenta. So,it wouldn't be possible to eat non-purple poke unless it is grown with the total exclusion of light, in which case its ghostly creamy white-yellow with some purple tinges on the stems.

Perhaps its either a genetic thing or a response to temperature. Up here in Michigan, springs are probably cooler than in the south, perhaps as many other plants do, poke just produces more pigmentation in colder weather.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 3:17PM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

The new shoots have some magenta in the stalk but the leaves are green. As the plant matures, the color advances up the stem to the base of the leaves. However, the leaves themselves stay green. Cooking and dumping the water removes the magenta color from the stalk and leaves it a pale green; the leaves stay dark green and look like cooked spinach.

I've seen pictures of polk plants from around the world and none of them had magenta (or purple) leaves.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 6:51PM
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The root is deadly, no matter the season, then the berry & seeds, then the mature leaves & stalk.
I never heard the berry juice is safe.
I know people who do NOT perboil, say it is a waste.
I have had poke once, it was good.
I am with Lucky p, to many garden greens.
They are easy to grow & cook, I eat collards year around.
Anyone need poke seeds, I can get you some this Winter.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 7:49PM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

Boiling and rinsing removes most of the harmful toxins from the leaves and stalk. Failure to do so is dangerous and could result in severe illness or even death.

The seeds also contain the toxin and must be discarded. The juice is bland and relatively tasteless, but is often mixed with strong flavored juice for jelly.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2012 at 12:34AM
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Here in Alabama we gather poke in the Spring as do many others areas. However, our guide for gathering is the appearence of the berries or seed heads. Our plants have the magenta color from the get-go, so we were taught to use the berries as a guide.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2013 at 3:45PM
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t-bird(Chicago 5/6)

very informative thread, thanks Molly.

Have had this growing in my yard for years, just keep cutting it down.

I'm a very adventurous eater and love all kinds of greens, but must say, it makes me nervous to try this - if in fact - it comes up again this year - have not seen it (or my asparagus!) yet this season.

Very interesting to me is that the 3 major weed issues I have on this place are all edible - burdock, patience dock, and now this one! 2 owners ago was a serious gardener, seems to be the legacy.

to clarify - 3 boilings of water and change water.....for how long each boils?

I may get the courage to try. Apparently with patience dock, you also need to boil and discard water....

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 3:23PM
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Mollymcbee, I'm curious about your repeated warnings about boiling. You seem to take the warnings of eating poke without the changes of water very seriously. I've boiled with two changes of water myself, but I've heard and know too many people that ate poke for decades without following the self-anointed experts' advice to believe the danger isn't grossly exaggerated. Does anyone have any solid basis to believe anyone has actually suffered any (medical) harm from eating insufficiently boiled shoots or young leaves? Or is it all myth and hearsay?

    Bookmark   May 19, 2013 at 11:32PM
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In the south most older folks ate ' poke sallet ' every spring when it first came up. They always used a generous amount of lard added to the poke leaves and water when cooking. They didn't forget to paraboil it first. Herbalist Tommy Bass told me that he used lard in his salve because it had the properties to counteract toxins.
Several years ago I along with many others was struggling under the false premise that fats caused heart problems. I told my wife to prepare the poke sallet leaves with hardly any lard at all. After eating the poke sallet I ended up with extreme gripping in my intestines. I learned a valuable lesson from this.
I have eaten many servings of poke sallet since then with the good advice from my wife to use plenty of lard and with no ill effects at all.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2013 at 4:00PM
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Great discussion! No rants, no trolls, very civilized and enjoyable.

I was surprised, however, that no one mentioned the legendary Tony Joe White's classic "Poke Salat Annie;" here's a wonderful B&W video of him back in the day:

Here is a link that might be useful: Tony Joe White, Poke Salat Annie

This post was edited by PatsyMac on Sat, Nov 30, 13 at 10:42

    Bookmark   November 30, 2013 at 10:39AM
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Is there any nutritional value in eating poke besides possibly fiber, since it gets boiled so many times? I have a couple of volunteer poke plants in my garden and might consider eating provided they are worth eating, nutritionally.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 8:53AM
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mollymcbee(PNW 8)

Poke contains healthful substances that other wild or cultivated greens don't have. It is very high in minerals and vitamins. Check out the link below to get info on poke's nutritional value.

Here is a link that might be useful: Nutritional value of pokeweed (poke salat)

    Bookmark   December 22, 2013 at 9:35AM
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Thanks for the link mollymcbee.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 8:23AM
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I love having fresh greens this time of year before any of the spring garden plants are ready for harvest and especially after a winter that hardly any of the fall greens survived. The thicker stems are nice with the leaves. I'm also enjoying greenbriar shoots sauteed in lots of butter. I collect poke, but I wouldn't take the time to collect greenbriar shoots myself, but my children enjoy collecting them, and I definitely enjoy eating them.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2014 at 9:30AM
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It's mid-July here in southern Illinois, and last evening I decided to try a mess of poke salat for the first time. It was with some trepidation I ventured toward the ravine behind our garage where I found an abundance of 6' plants with white blossoms clustered on drooping stems. The main stalks were magenta. I carefully picked the tenderest leaves 5" or less in length, pinching them off at the base of the leaf. After thoroughly washing the mess, I boiled them three times (5' hard boil each time), changing the water after each boil. After squeezing out the water I sauteed them with chopped onion for 15-20'. They were still bright green in color and tasted delicious--even without any seasoning, slightly sweet--we suffered no ill effects.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 11:48AM
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