Phytolaccaceae (pokeberry family)
This powerful medicinal plant has a battery of regional names: pokeweed, scoke, poocan, garget, pigeon berry, pigeon-blood, poke-salat, cancer root, and cancer jalap. Its Latin name, Phytolacca, refers to the family it belongs to: phyto, meaning plant, and lac, meaning a crimson dye; americana speaks for itself, identifying the species as a native. This widely spread perennial grows from Maine to Florida and Mexico, and across the West, except in the Dakotas.
Mature poke plants, multi-branched with ruby-red stalks and stems in late summer, can grow up to ten feet tall. Earlier, small flowers appear in long, often curving or drooping spires. Each tiny greenish-white, petal-like sepal ripens into a purple-black, fleshy berry Songbirds favor the ripe, dark purple berries and excrete the fertile black seeds indiscriminately, thus assuring a wide distribution for this amazing herb. After killing frosts arrive, it dies back to the ground.
Poke’s genus embraces about twenty-five species of coarse herbs, shrubs, and treelike perennials native to the tropics and warm regions. The Brazilian species, Phytolacca dioica, is an evergreen tree that can grow to sixty feet tall and develop a thick trunk. Two East Asian species, P. acinosa and P. esculenta, are grown as ornamentals and potherbs. American poke is one of our most rugged, enduring herbs, with many historical and contemporary uses.
American Indians made use of all plant parts in their specific seasons of optimum strength. Throughout the winter, even year-round, the often-huge taproots, fresh or dried, were pounded and poulticed on wounds, tumors, bruises, rheumatic swellings, and sore breasts. Poke root was vital in many cancer and diabetes remedies.
Poke Root tea served to treat rheumatism, arthritis, and other joint infirmities; the warm tea was helpful as a skin wash to treat bruises, swellings, and sprains. Many believed this spring tonic was also a powerful preventive medicine.
Young spring shoots of American poke provided delicious, asparagus-like greens for our ancestors, and still do for us. When only six inches high, they are easily collected and stewed as a potherb. The cooking water should be brought to a boil and poured off at least once to discard the dark, bitter elements.
The plant’s simple, ovate, alternate leaves exude bright green ink when crushed or rubbed. Crushed pokeberries yield one of nature’s most brilliant magenta colors. Exciting ranges of inks and dyes come from some of the poke species, but unfortunately they are not sun-fast. Unless over-dyed, the colors will fade.
Contemporary herbalists view poke with both respect and caution. A tincture of poke root is used as a blood cleanser in very small amounts and also taken to relieve lymph congestion and swollen lymph nodes. American pokeweed contains numerous alkaloids and complex chemicals, some of which are quite harmful to human systems. A pokeweed mitogen is being studied in anti-tumor immunity research, as it seems to stimulate cell transformation. Poke root is used in several herbal cancer remedies, including essiac and floressence.
The whole plant is toxic. Never use during pregnancy. Plant juice of pokeweed can cause dermatitis in very sensitive individuals.
Growth needs and propagation:
Poke grows readily from seeds and root cuttings. The main effort needed is to keep this plant under control in the garden, where it will grow up like a shrub, towering six to ten feet tall from mature roots.
Poke grows well with almost everything, especially yarrow and strawberry. It seems to enhance the growth of gourds.
Take the berries of pokeweed, or cokum, squeeze out their juice, add it to the same quantity of cream and simmer it down to the consistency of an ointment. If this is used in the early stages of the disease [cancer], it is a certain safe and easy cure. It should be rubbed on every six or eight hours until it has some effect.
– John Williams, a “celebrated Indian doctor,” in his 1828 book New and Valuable Recipes for the Cure of Many Diseases
For sprains and bruises, a poke root was boiled and applied mashed as a poultice.
– David Williams, Oneida herbalist, Oneidatown, 1912