Pokeweed – a Spring Time Treat
I walked through the field at the White House Farm, gleefully plucking the green shoots at soil level and putting them in my canvas gathering bag. A true harbinger of summer, nothing beats a big mess of poke salet, steaming in a bowl, with a little melted butter and a splash of balsamic and red wine vinegar.
The other spring offerings are tasty – dandelion greens, chickweed, lambs quarters – but poke weed has such a wonderful flavor and has more substantial mass than the leaves of the daintier greens, making an easier meal. It is packed with nutrients, a welcome change after a long winter of scant fresh wild greens.
Poke salet or Phytolacca americana is variously known as poke weed, poke berry, poke salad and simply poke. It is native to North and South America, New Zealand and East Asia. Recognized easily by its stately wands of lustrous black berries in mid-summer born on plants which can be as tall as 12 feet, it is an early colonizer of disturbed areas – building sites which have sat for awhile, areas of erosion, etc.
For those in the southern US, poke is a familiar sight along roads and abandoned lots.
A word of caution with poke: it is poisonous and can be deadly if not cooked properly. Most accounts say gather the spring greens when they are six to eight inches tall, boil them three times and pour off the water completely. The mature plants develop toxins and under no circumstances are the root or uncooked greens to be eaten.
However, the plant has been used medicinally by trained naturopaths for a host of ailments.
For “old timers” and those familiar with the goodness of gathering wild plants, when prepared correctly (I boil mine twice for a total of about 10 minutes, stalks and leaves), poke is one of the most premium of the choice greens.
As far as wildlife, birds eat the berries as they are not affected by the toxin. Some lepidoptera also eat pokeweed.
The abundant black berries yield a red dye which Native Americans used to decorate their horses. The ink derived from the berries captured soldiers’ thoughts on paper during the War Between the States and is still legible in those missives today.
This delicacy has a taste somewhere between spinach and asparagus, tinged with the flavor of childhood when most of us spent many more hours outside than we do now. Each bite just tastes healthy and indeed, a friend who practices herbal medicine, avows that the wild-gathered foods have far more nutrients than those which are cultivated.
Pokeweed also represents self sufficiency – the ability to identify the wild offerings and willingness to spend the time to gather them. For those in the know, this can save significant amounts of money. As I scooped the boiled greens out of the large pot on the stove and filled freezer bags, I appreciated the monetary savings of the greens which would be made into a future quiche, soup or stir fry. And, anything with poke salet is likely to be one of the more unusual dishes at the next potluck.
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Chris Anderson, Executive Director