Pokeweed’s Humble Beginnings

Pokeweed is a plant that has played an important part in traditional herbal treatments. A plant that is considered to be a native of North and Central America, Pokeweed is one among the several species of Phytolaccas (Phyton in Greek standing for plant and lacca in Latin meaning lacquer). It is also found in East Asia and New Zealand.

Historically, the Pokeweed plant was used by Native Americans as a purgative as well as emetic. It was also used for its anti-rheumatic properties. The US Pharmacopoeia listed this plant as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory for close to a century beginning in 1820. The English name Pokeweed is derived from ‘Pocan’ (plants giving out red dye) and ‘Pak’ meaning blood. Both these words come from the Native American tongue.
pokeweed plant
The Pokeweed plant goes by a range of names that include offshoots like poke, pokebush, pokeberry and pokeroot. Names given to the popular dish made with the tender leaves are polk salad, polk salat and polk sallet.

Thanks to the crimson liquid it is filled with, the weed is also known as inkberry or ombú. This last name is specific to the pampas in South America. This particular version of the plant grows to the great heights of large trees. They provide a lot of shade as well. It is a symbolic plant in the cultures of Argentina and Uruguay.

Type of Herb

Pokeweed is a perennial herb. It grows to a maximum of 12 feet and has a thick purple shaded stem. Its leaves are pointed in shape and it blooms greenish-white flowers in clusters. These clusters of five or more flowers grow into berries, which are filled with a dark red juice. You will see this plant in full bloom between July and September.

Pokeweed is a sturdy plant and grows out in the open. Almost any kind of soil is suitable for its growth. All it needs is soil that is well-drained and regular exposure to sunlight. Pokeweed is not cultivated simply because it grows in ample abundance in the wild.

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Propagation of Pokeweed

In terms of propagation, birds tend to eat the berries and then scatter the seeds around. That is why these plants are found in the strangest of places. In rare cases, these seeds are found mixed in with regular garden seeds and are looked upon as impurities. The Pokeweed has a substance called saponin. This substance is extremely poisonous. Birds however, seem to have developed an immunity to it.

Almost every part of the Pokeweed plant is poisonous and this includes the berries. The toxicity is the highest when the plant is young and all of it is concentrated in the roots. Pokeweed shoots need to be collected in the Spring in order to harvest the edible, non-toxic portions.

Similarly, the roots have to be picked during the fall. Once you have thoroughly dried them, they can be stored and used at a later stage. The berries too can be eaten only when they have just turned ripe. As for the berries, it is only the juice, which can be consumed, the seeds of the Pokeweed berry remain poisonous.

Using Pokeweed Leaves

Traditionally, Pokeweed leaves were taken out before they acquired their signature red color. These were then boiled in water, rinsed off thoroughly and then boiled once again. This was done at least three times with the water being thrown out after each session.

These boiled leaves were used in Pokeweed salad, though there were several who still did not agree with this application of Pokeweed. The leaves are also processed in a similar manner for use as tea. In addition, the young shoots are also eaten as a substitute for asparagus.

The red juice of the berries was extracted and then cooked. This juice was then used in the making of pies. It is also added to other juices that are used for making jelly. No part of the Pokeweed plant can be eaten underdone, uncooked or unprocessed.

A History of Uses

Pokeweed gained prominence as a traditional means of healing. Herbalists of yore used it in the preparation of a number of topical ointments as well as medication that could be ingested. As a topical treatment, it was used to ease acne. In terms of ingestion, it was used to soothe infections, treat tonsillitis and inflammation of the glands.

Breast related ailments such as swelling and rashes are treated with a grated Pokeweed root. It also helps soothe mastitis. Herbalists also used Pokeweed in the treatment of cancers of the uterus, throat as well as breasts. It has been used both topically as well as internally. A very famous result of this use has been the controversial Hoxsey Formula used in cancer care.

Mainstream medical practitioners have not accepted this form of treatment. Pokeweed has also been found to be effective in the treatment of scrofula, eczema, psoriasis and other skin related ailments.

Strength of Pokeweed

Even long ago, Pokeweed was considered to be extremely potent and herbalists often used watered down formulas in the form of tinctures and decoctions. These herbal formulas were used as blood cleansers and as a means to treat aching joints, which today we call rheumatism.

Pokeweed treatments were administered in an on-off style where a particular form of the medication was to be taken for a fixed period. A gap was prescribed in between and then the course resumed. Some of the dosages prescribed were one berry once a week or three berries three times a week.

Traditional Appalachian herbalists created a whiskey tincture out of the roots or a wine out of the berries in order to preserve these portions of the plant for internal use. Kerosene was used in the traditional methods of extractions. Experienced herbalists today prefer olive oil instead.

Treating Cancer

Pokeweed has an old reputation of being used to treat cancer. It even goes by the name cancer root. There are however, two variations in terms of application. Traditionally, one set of herbalists believed that the plant would be effective in its fresh form. Several others however propagated the use of the dried plant.

There is a great deal of investigation going on in terms of the use of Pokeweed for the treatment of AIDS and cancer. However, the studies are yet to be conclusive. Herbalists of today believe that the plant can help stimulate a weak thyroid gland. There have been references to Pokeweed being used for goiter as well as obesity. However, so far it is unclear whether the plant works on the gland directly or via the metabolism process thanks to its alternative properties.

Modern Day Usage

Today Pokeweed is used as an alternative therapy. It is believed to have alternative properties. This means that it gradually changes the way an illness runs its course. It works on the internal functioning of the body in terms of extracting nutrition and subsequent expulsion. This means that it acts as a cleanser for the digestive system as well as the blood. The liver is also believed to benefit from its cleansing properties. The direct result of blood cleansing is relief from a number of skin ailments. Pokeweed has proven useful in the treatment of scrofula, eczema as well as psoriasis.

Pokeweed is also used as an anti-viral. The Pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP) in several experiments conducted shows a tremendous capacity for fighting against several known viruses, of which HIV is also included. This last, however has been seen only in the in-vitro stage.

Chemical Makeup

Pokeweed’s chemical makeup consists of triterpene saponins and tannins. It also has resins, and an active glycoprotein known as Pokeweed mitogens. These affect the division of cells. Therefore, they perform well against many illness causing organisms. Pokeweed’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a good remedy for throat-based illnesses like laryngitis, tonsillitis, as well as pharyngitis.

It is also used in the treatment of gland-based ailments and prevents or soothes ailments like lymphatic and glandular stasis. Examples of these would be goiter, mumps, and inflamed glands including the thyroid gland. Pokeweed is considered an immune enhancer, cathartic as well as emetic. Its purgative actions ensure that the bowels are emptied rapidly and if necessary, it induces vomiting.

Externally Pokeweed has been used to treat an eye infection known as conjunctivitis. A poultice of its roots is used in ointments to soothe ulcers, sores as well as infections and rashes. It has been used effectively on skin illnesses like ringworm, acne as well as the occasional scabies. As an insect repellent Pokeweed works well.

Pokeweed for Women & Arthritis

Pokeweed has also been used to alleviate several illnesses specific to women. Endometriosis can be eased with the prescribed use of Pokeweed. Premenstrual breast pain as well as aches can be dealt with as well. Oil infused with small amounts of Pokeweed root can be used as a stomach rub. Alternately low dose tinctures can be used. Interstitial cystitis is another inflammatory ailment that can be healed with this same tincture. Hemorrhoid pain too can be relieved with an extract from the roots.

From the olden days, Pokeweed has been used to relieve the pain and inflammation associated with rheumatic arthritis. The tincture is useful here. Alternately, you could have a berry or two that have been dried, swallow this whole. Very small quantities of the tincture can also alleviate headaches. Berry infused spirits too have been used under prescription for treatment of chronic rheumatism.

Choosing an Herbalist

No matter what the case, the use of Pokeweed must be undertaken with caution. Only trust highly qualified herbalists in the administering of Pokeweed remedies. They have to be administered in very small quantities and these have to be correctly measured.

Dr. Richard Shulze is a very famous modern day herbalist and healer. He promotes the use of Pokeweed and uses it even in his detox program. For a more glamorous reference, Poke Salad Annie was a song penned by Tony Joe White in 1969. The song was later on covered by the legend that was Elvis Presley.

Pokeweed Modern Day

Pokeweed can be used in a number of different ways. Modern science and technology has made it possible for Pokeroot to be processed and made available in the form of lotions, creams and poultices for topical use. You can buy it in the form of powders, Pokeweed root oil, root oil tincture as well as a variety of decoctions. E

ach one of these products is used in a different way to treat a range of illnesses. Pokeroot poultices are used for the treatment of swollen joints or even ulcers and hemorrhoids. In all its forms, Pokeweed needs to be diluted before use. Pokeweed oil can be diluted to make a tincture. This is then extensively used to treat lymphatic diseases.

Pokeweed root powder is for ingestion. This has to be taken in very small doses. This is what you use to treat mastitis, rheumatism as well as other lymphatic disorders. Its extracts have been found to be very effective in treating skin based ailments like eczema, rashes and infection.

Pokeweed Oil

Pokeweed oil can be processed with olive oil and similar oils for topical use to heal swellings as well as growths on the body. Abnormal skin growths have been treated this way. Pokeweed root can also be made into a soothing salve by melting some beeswax into it. This can then be used on skin growths.

Pokeweed is not a medically recommended form of treatment. Rather it is an alternative method. Therefore, there is no hard and fast formula in terms of dosage. For adults, who are above the age of 18 years, a gram of dried Pokeweed root can be had as a purgative. If you are trying to boost your immune system or treat chronic rheumatism you can up the dosage to around 60 to 100 mg a day. However, this has to be done under strict supervision of an experienced herbalist.
using pokeweend
Pokeweed in any of its forms is not recommended for children below 18 years of age. In addition, pregnant women and lactating mothers should refrain from using this. Simply because there is not enough evidence that Pokeweed is harmless to these two categories of people.

Buying Pokeweed

You can easily buy Pokeweed under prescription or over the counter. It is available in all quality natural living or herb stores. Some of the popular brands that can be found are:

  • Nature’s Apothecary Fresh Plant Single-Herb Extracts
  • Herb Lore
  • Pokeroot tincture
  • Wiseways
  • Herbal Remedies USA
  • Alternative Health and Herbs Remedies
  • EcoTrend

If shopping online is something you are more comfortable with then you can visit some of the following sites to ensure that you get a good deal as well as quality. It goes without saying that you need to check on the credibility of the store that you plan to buy from. Online reviews as well as personal recommendations should be your basis. Some websites you can visit are:

  • Dherbs.com
  • Thefind.com
  • Feelgoodnatural.com
  • Gardenofledeniving.com
  • Ravensflight.com.

On sale, two fl oz of tincture or oil is in the range of $9.95. Regularly, you can expect to pay between $15 and $18 for the same amount.

Potential Side Effects

Before one decides to use Pokeweed as a form of treatment, it is a good idea to understand the possible side effects that this herb can have. For starters, if you are using the dried version of Pokeweed root you should consume it in very small doses of just a few grams. Anything more and you will suffer from nausea, vomiting, as well as diarrhea. These symptoms can become aggravated when traces of it begin to show in the blood. Prolonged ingestion despite these symptoms could possibly be fatal. Fatalities have occurred, but these have been very few and very far apart.

Some symptoms you can look out for are a burning throat and mouth, fast heartbeat, giddiness as well as fainting. This is in cases of ingestion. Topical ointments can result in rashes or irritability of the skin. Pregnant women and those breastfeeding should refrain from having anything to do with Pokeweed since the berry can stimulate the uterus negatively and induce an abortion.

Drug Interactions

If you are already on prescribed medication for any ailment, then you should be careful about the use of Pokeweed roots. These could react with your existing medication and induce a completely new set of problems. Pokeweed root can reduce blood pressure.

If you are planning to use this herb then do so only after consulting your doctor on the effect it can have. Since Pokeweed is also an anti-inflammatory and could react negatively with drugs that work towards the same thing. The same is also possible with diuretics. Since it is anti-viral, it may not go well with other antiviral medicines. It may also cause a heart block in some cases.

Handling Pokeweed

There are also some precautions that need to be kept in mind when you are handling Pokeweed root. It is always best to wear a set of protective gloves if you are going to be handling the plant. This precaution is to prevent the leaves or any other parts of the plant from coming in contact with cut or broken skin. If Pokeweed root were to mix with your blood, it could have some harmful effects.

Only use the young leaves that have been plucked during the spring. Boil these at least two times and then discard the water. There is a debate on when the berries of this plant are at their most toxic level. While some believe the ripe berries are less toxic, others feel that a certain level of toxicity will prevail. Also important to keep in mind is that Pokeweed is said to have certain narcotic features and therefore should be taken only under a prescription.

Pokeweed in Your Yard

Since pokeweed grows in the wild, there is every chance of you finding it in your backyard one day. This poses a huge chance of poisoning especially if you have children and pets around. They are basically weeds and you should remove them especially if they are growing around the hedges. If you have only a few of them, you can pull them up by the root and destroy them. If you have a huge infestation, dig up the whole patch and plant corn there instead. These clean plants will prevent a re-growth.

If you have these weeds growing in the wastelands around your home, you will need to use specially formulated ester diluted in water to treat it. This keeps the growth of the plants under control.

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    I cook poke salad every spring love it but i want to know if i can freeze it or is there some wat i can keep it for later meals RICHARD

    • Reply scott

      yes you can freeze it, I can and pickle mine like Sauerkraut.

    • Reply P Williams

      Yes you can freeze it i have been freezing it and preserving it in that manner and thawing it out and heating in the microwave 6 min 30 sec. when ever i have the urge to eat some

  • Reply Jeff

    My 17 year old daughter has several warts on her leg, around her knee. I have lots of pokeweed growing in our pasture. Is there anyway I could use them to get rid of her warts???

  • Reply Erin

    I have Pokeweed growing in my garden and have recently tried it, one berry at a time. It is safe in small amounts – maybe once a week – and seems to have helped with some lung congestion that I’ve been having, possibly from an allergic reaction to a fungus I’ve been exposed to. I would like to learn more about this herb, in relation to how to prepare it for its healing properties. As a cancer survivor, I am very much interested in this.

    • Reply Mike

      Are you removing the seeds before you eat the berries?

  • Reply thelma gray

    I have started takeing polk berrys for arthritis its is helping greatly, but i need to know how to store the berrys so they want ruin.

    • Reply Judy Dowell-bundschuh

      Place dried berries in an airtight container and store in a dry cool place, or refrigerate, freeze. If you have a dehydrator, dehydrate at 115-120-°f for 10 to 24 hours, then place dried berries in a jar.

  • Reply charles kuchar

    I eat the ripe berrys regularly when I am working in the garden. I take about a dozen at a time with no noticeable effects. today I dug one of the roots for drying. it is a tough process digging one up because they go more than a foot down in the ground. charlie

  • Reply Janet in Tenn

    In the early part of the last century, my Grandfather’s family doctor agreed to treat the entire family for $20 per year IF …. they would all eat Poke Greens in the Spring and Drink Sassafras Tea in the Fall.

    I think they clean the blood and lymph system as well as purifying and strengthening the Liver.

  • Reply Nic

    How effective is it against HSV?

    • Reply J0yce

      Nic, cannot give you a personal experience rep0rt, but will tell you about a little bit of wisdom shared in one of our physiology lectures. Our Instructor, Paulette Langford said: “From a little research project we have going here (Vanderbilt University) we can tell you that pokeberries throws the body into gear to fight, but we don’t know”. I sat there and grinned because I had already been taking pokeberries for l8+ years. When I looked up the data base on the plant, I knew why it did. One of the first chemicals named in the pokeberries was alpha-spinasterol which was said to be 3 times stronger than phenylbutazone which orthodox medicine prescribes for bursitis. There are many other chemicals with many other activities.

      If you have HIV, then you might want to consider Dr. Linus Pauling’s recommendation of 2 grams vitamin C with 2 grams of L-lysine at least 4 times per day – can be taken more often without problems.

      I started taking the pokeberries for total body arthritis pain on the recommendation of a wise woman with probably not more than a 3rd grade education, who remembered her 80+ years old aunt had been taking them for years for arthritis and convinced me that they were not poisonous as I had been raised to believe.

  • Reply Eileen Gates

    what is the best method for freezing cooked poke?

    • Reply P Williams

      Best method that i know of for freezing poke salad that i use is either freezer containers or freezer bags.

  • Reply Eileen Gates

    What is the best method for freezing poke greens?

    • Reply J0yce

      Eileen, many years ago, when approximately 15 – 20 acres next to me got bulldozed and volunteered me a most bountiful crop of poke sallet, I froze 50+ quarts or it which was rather tasty when cooked. Contrary to many reports I have read that you have to boil the greens & drain 3 time before eating, my family only parboiled them & drained them once before our final cooking which usually included some bacon, bacon grease and beaten eggs. Ummm! Still like them. My son also taught me that it is safe to the tender leaves off the tops of the mature poke to cook safely.

      That bumper crop of poke sallet that year also provided me with a bunper crop of solid poke shoots below the leaves we cooked. Never heard of poke shoot stalk pickles before, but not one to waste good food, using a dill pickle recipe, made 50 or more pints of poke stalk pickles. They were delicious and my 2, 3, 4 and 13 year old kids ate them like candy – didn’t last through the winter – too tasty and went quickly.

      • Reply Betty

        Joyce, I have dried some pokeberries but I dont know how many to take. I have arthritus from lymes disease.

      • Reply Paula

        We gather the young plants in spring. Then I wash in cold water, cut the leaves and stalks like other greens, add salt and cornmeal, then fry in hot melted shortening. We like it better this way than boiled.

  • Reply daniel ferrer

    I am taking pokeberry root for a while now …. I have never been sick since I have been taking it … I eat the berries and I have frozen the roots … I cut little pieces at a time and I chowed it down…. it is a powerful plant so do not take big portions , it is not poisonous …I have been taking small and big portion and nothing has happened to me … the worse it can happen is make you puke or give you diarrhea , which is good to detoxify the body … all pain in my body is gone …even after fracturing my arm after a year I have no pain at all …and I am over 40 years old …I believe this is a miracle plant ..I thank God for it !

  • Reply Jennifer

    We recently bought a house which included quite a few acres that were rich in fruit (planted and wild). Knowing that pokeweed was poisonous, I removed it from an over-run grape vine and googled whether it was safe to burn or not. Wow, I never new there were so many herbalism uses. My mother gets a respiratory infection every year and refuses to take pharmaceuticals. After testing my heavily researched home-made pokeweed rood tincture on myself, I might just be able to offer her an alternative.

  • Reply Jason Neil

    I was cutting down the polk in my yard a few days ago and I think some of the stem oil may have got into a cat scratch on my wrist. It bubbled up like a blister in 4 spots. I’ve been treating it with Ivyrest. This morning, I pricked the blister and applied a baking soda paste for an hr then put more ivyrest on it. I’m now feeling a sore throat, headache and low grade fever. Is this coincidence or is this related to the polk plants?

  • Reply J0yce

    More likely related to the cat scratch. Have been taking pokeberries for 53 years. with only good results – no adverse side effects to date. Have gotten the juice or sap from various parts of the plant on hands, arms, etd. with no problems whatever.

    Look up cat scratch fever and see if it might be your cat scratch reaction, not the poke sallet plant.

    Relative asked for home remedy for scabies several years back. Told her about reading that boiling poke root in water & letting it cool before applying it. Asked her later if it worked and her reply was: “Yes, but I thought it was going to set me on fire”. Just read on Susan Weed’s that the poke root is used externally on many conditions, so am going to give it a try on some skin tags and actinic keratosis – she also mentioned that it felt a little hot and stinging when applied

  • Reply Philip M Giedroyce

    What about for bone spurs? Has anyone had experience with this plant helping?

  • Reply mark tousley

    how do I take pokeweed for colon cancer

  • Reply Amber sardothian

    Ive recently looked up the poke plant and I realized that ive had the same plant on other occasions when I was 12 and I would have handful apon handfuls and never developed any symptoms of the poke berry. Now learning that its toxic, im confused.

  • Reply Gen Jackson

    Anyone know if this is effective for gout?

  • Reply Marla

    I read that boiling the root and using the water on shingles will dry them up

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