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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poke Salad

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a robust perennial potherb native to the eastern United States. It belongs to the pokeweed family (Phytolaccaceae), a small family found mostly in Africa and the New World. Poke is derived from the Algonquian Indian word "pakon" or "puccoon," referring to a dye plant used for staining. It is sometimes spelled polk and the leaves were reportedly worn by enthusiastic supporters during the campaign of James K. Polk, 11th president of the United States. Pokeweed cooked is called Poke Salad or Poke Salet.

Pokeweed may grow to nine feet tall, with large, alternate leaves and a carrotlike taproot. It may become a very invasive weed in southern California gardens and is difficult to eradicate when it becomes well-established. Greenish-white flowers are produced in long clusters (racemes) that droop due to the weight of ripening fruit.

The flattened berries change from green to shiny purplish-black. Ripe berries yield a crimson juice that was used as a substitute for red ink and to enhance the color of pale wines. The coloring of wine with pokeweed berries has been discouraged because they are very poisonous. Early American settlers also made a crimson dye from the berry juice. Indians often used the pokeweed concoctions for a variety of internal and external medicinal applications. The berries, which ripen in fall, are also popular with migrating songbirds, especially robins, towhees, mockingbirds, mourning doves, catbirds and bluebirds. Sometimes the birds get drunk on overly ripe berries and fly into closed windows or sides of buildings. "The roots, berries, seeds and mature stems and leaves of pokeweed are poisonous," says Extension Food Scientist Jean Weese. There are at least three different types of poison in this plant -- phytolaccatoxin, triterpene saponins, an alkaloid, phytolaccin, and histamines. To prepare it, you pick the young leaves and boil them in salted water for about 20 minutes. Drain and discard the water. Boil in fresh water again for 20 minutes. Drain and discard the water. Boil a third time in fresh water and drain. The greens should be ready to eat. Butter is good on them. I don't eat them but once or twice a year butI do love them. A very distinctive flavor. "The boiling process removes some of the toxins but certainly not all of them, I suggest that people avoid this plant no matter how many times your mother or grandmother may have prepared it in the past and no matter how good it tasted. Why would you want to eat something that we know is toxic when there are so many other non-toxic plants out there we can eat?" says Dr. Jean Weese, Food Scientist, Alabama Cooperative Exension System, (334) 844-3269

Warning-Don't let your children or dogs get hold of this plant or it's berries! Do not allow it to grow in your yard where children or animals are unsupervised!

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