For decades, I thought the lyrics were “oak salad” but the distinct downbeat and thumping bass of Tony Joe White’s Poke Sallet Annie tells a gardening story that makes you wonder how people ever started eating this poisonous plant. But eat and grow it they do!
[I urge you to click on the link above to listen to the song as you read – it’s a classic and it’ll get you moving for sure!]
Poke sallet (Phytolacca americana), also known as inkberry, pokeberry, pidgeonberry, and pokeweed, is a perennial weed that is native to eastern North America, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest, but is now found along the California coast and is appearing throughout North America.
The poke sallet plant
Poke sallet is described as something like turnip greens. Being able to grow 10’ tall, I’d have to say that was one heck of a turnip! Instead of a bulbous root, poke sallet plants have taproots from which multiple sturdy green, crimson, or purplish branches grow. Smooth-edged, spade-shaped leaves can be 16” long and often have a funky smell. Sometimes leaf veins are crimson, too. Small, white to pinkish-white flowers grow in elongated clusters called racemes. These flowers are unique in that they do not have petals. Instead, they have five upright sepals. These sepals start to droop as the fruit develops. Berries are a glossy purplish-black.
This plant dies back each winter and returns each spring. Also, seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years. If you don’t want poke sallet in your landscape, you’d best remove it before it goes to seed.
Poke sallet is poisonous to people, dogs, and livestock. The berries and roots are extremely toxic, getting more so as the plant ages. But local birds, giant leopard moth caterpillars, grey and red foxes, opossums, raccoons, and white-footed mice love the berries and are not affected by the toxins.
Before you try harvesting (or removing) some poke, you need to know that pokeweed sap can be absorbed through the skin and should be avoided. Historically, poke sallet was used to treat arthritis. The plant was also mistaken for horseradish, Jerusalem artichoke, and parsnip. In the 1890s, poke sallet extract was even advertised as a weight-loss cure. As a result, poisoning was common. That being said, in her memoir, Dolly Parton admitted to using poke sallet berry juice as a lipstick, when her parents forbade her from wearing makeup.
How people decided to eat poke sallet is beyond me. It ends up that new shoots and leaves can be eaten, but only if prepared in the right way. [I have always wondered about all the times people kept trying to find the Right Way by learning they had discovered yet another Wrong Way. How many times do you keep trying? I know hunger can certainly be a powerful motivator, but damn!] When prepared as food, the tender new leaves and shoots are often called poke salad or polk salad. When not prepared properly, poke sallet can cause explosive digestive problems and even death.
The proper method of preparing poke sallet involves boiling young leaves and stems two or three times in fresh water, for 20 minutes each time. Poke sallet greens are then fried in bacon grease and seasoned with salt and pepper. Onions may also be added. The stems are said to taste like asparagus, while the leaves taste like spinach.
I don’t know if I will consider poke sallet a garden edible or a weed. I guess it’s both. But I probably won’t be ordering seeds any time soon.
Would you eat poke sallet if you found it growing in your landscape?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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