Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How I find and safely eat pokeweed shoots in early spring

Hi all, I'd like to start by saying, this post is my personal story about how I safely eat pokeweed, a plant which can be deadly if not properly harvested and prepared.

I prepare poke the way my Southern grandma did; many people say now that the old ways are too conservative, that the plant is safe to harvest older, and to spend less time processing. I believe that those people do what's right for them, but I don't think that there is a "right for everyone" way to eat this plant. 

Though I will share some tips for identification, this is not primarily an identification post, rather a personal experience post. Maybe I'll do an ID post down the line. 

Pokeweed should not be eaten by young children, or women who are pregnant, looking to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.

Pokeweed quick history

Pokeweed was extensively eaten throughout the Eastern and Southern United States until quite recently, sometime in the 1960s. It was an especially important food for the early colonists, some Native American tribes, African Americans, and the people of Appalachia. It's free, very abundant, easy to identify and one of the earliest greens that can be harvested in the spring. Pokeweed also has an important role as a dye for fabrics, and in the traditional medicines of the Native Americans and the people of Appalachia.

Pokeweed was most commonly prepared as "Poke Sallet", sometimes corrupted as "Poke Salad" but it's important NEVER to eat these plants raw, doing so can make you sick or worse. Poke sallet are boiled greens that are then fried up with bacon and butter to make a hearty meal perfect for the season: using the end of last years preserved meats with the fresh taste of new greens.

The Declaration of Independence is written in pokeweed ink, as were many of the letters Civil War soldiers wrote home. (It was free and readily available).  Supporters of 1844 Presidential candidate James Polk wore pokeweed on their lapels. (He went on to win, against the odds, and become the 11th President of the United States). Poke Salad Annie was a 1969 Billboard hit, about a poor Southern girl who has to eat poke, as it's free.

Potential dangers of pokeweed

Eating older or improperly prepared pokeweed has been linked to fatalities, especially amongst children, but even for adults. Pokeweed contains several different dangerous compounds, some of which seem to be water-soluble, hence, the necessary boiling of the plants. Older plants definitely have more of the toxins than young plants. The most toxic part of the plant is the root, which should never be eaten, not even a little bit. Cows and horses sometimes get bits of the root mixed in with their feed, and it can kill them as well.

It's very easy to accidentally break off some of the root when picking poke, as shown in this picture above. Make sure to break off the bottom of the plant, right at or above where the first true leaves are. Never eat the root. For absolute safety, you should bring scissors, and cut when harvesting, so you don't inadvertently pull up some root.

Pokeweed and vitamin A

One 1/2 cup serving of pokeweed contains more than your recommended daily amount of vitamins C and A. That's great for immune-system boosting vitamin C, which can be eaten in any amount, but not so much for vitamin A. Vitamin A is an antioxidant, essential for vision and skin health, and helps promote the growth of healthy cells; but it's also one of the vitamins that you can overdose on. In excessive amounts, too much vitamin A can cause death, but even in smaller overdoses it can lead to nausea, jaundice, irritable behavior, and hair loss. Because pokeweed contains more than the recommended daily dose, I never eat it more than 2-3 times a week. 

How and when I harvest poke

These very young shoots are at the perfect age for me to harvest

Pokeweed should only be eaten in the early spring. Sometimes small young plants can be found later than that (for example, if cut down, they will regrow any time of year). But I would recommend not eating them, because the plant seems to produce more toxins when the season is warmer.

You'll hear a bunch of conflicting stories about how and when to harvest pokeweed. Some people say it can get to knee high, and still be safe, if you peel it.  I err as much as possible on the side of caution, I try to find the shoots under 6" high, up to 8" if there is no red in the stem. In the image above, I would definitely take the two small plants to the right, but the taller one on the left I would leave behind. Many people would say this left plant is fine to eat as well.

I consider finding some of the distinctively shaped growth of the previous year as essential for identifying new plants, though this should not be the only way to ID poke, you need to inspect and ID the young plant as well.

How I safely prepare pokeweed

Pokeweed must never be eaten raw. Almost everyone agrees that pokeweed should be boiled in at least one change of water, and most people recommend 2 changes (for 3 total boilings).

Personally, I add the pokeweed to salted water, bring to a boil, and boil for about 7 minutes, then pour out all the water,  and drain well (press against your colander). Then start with fresh water, add the pokeweed, bring to a boil, and boil for another 7 minutes, pour out, and repeat one more time. All-in-all, the pokeweed spends about 30 minutes in the water, and about 20 minutes boiling.

Many people say this "ruins" the greens, especially for young plants, and advocate 30 minutes only for older plants. Famous forages, whom I trust, "Wildman" Steve Brill and "Green" Deane, both advocate a shorter water soak and boil period, only about 16-17 minutes total. For me, this shorter method doesn't work. When I tried it, I still experienced the "tingling mouth" sensation, and I also had diarrhea. However I know it works for other people.

Pokeweed taste

Many foragers find "the pokeweed tingle" one of the most interesting and unique things about this plant. It's a sensation in the mouth of tingling, sometimes described as effervescence, like a mild carbonation. I do not eat pokeweed if it still tingles. When I have, it's given me diarrhea, every time, but I might just be unusually sensitive.

That said, the tingle is a sign of some remaining toxicity. Pokeweed with a large amount of toxicity is reported to burn or sting the mouth. For this reason alone, I would cook the poke enough to remove the tingle.

Aside from that, pokeweed has a lovely flavor, similar to baby spinach, but with an indescribable creaminess that I get from no other vegetable. It has a rich mouthfeel that almost feels like a fatty meat. I never mix with bacon, because I don't want to overwhelm the taste and sensation of the poke.

Sustainable harvesting

Pokeweed is a native plant. It serves as food for birds and wildlife, and helps the soil resist erosion. The flowers are important for pollinators and bees.

That said, taking very young shoots doesn't really harm the plants much. At that point, they haven't expended much energy to grow them, and they will simply send up new shoots.

Don't harvest the same patch of shoots twice in one year, as you force the plant to expend more energy, and will drain the root stock of it's stored sugars. Doing this enough can kill the plant.

And that about sums up my personal experiences with pokeweed.  If you decide to eat this plant, I urge you to use caution, and harvest and eat on the safe side (like I do) first, and slowly, very slowly experiment with less boiling times or older plants.


  1. Tony Joe White would approve-

  2. I've eaten Poke since a child. We (me, my mom and grandma) boil it once, till it looks like cooked spinach, add a spoon or 2 of baking soda. after it foams up green and dies down, ma called this "taking the wild out" then drain and rinse (no pressing ) then boil new water and cook again for a couple minutes. Nobody has gotten so much as uncomfortable with this method in well over 100 years.