Phytolacca americana (pokeweed)*
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Painting by Gail McIntosh
Pokeweed is a plant hard to miss. When mature it can reach heights of 9 –10’ feet with a spread of near equal proportion. It can be found in fields, along roadways and in clearings and it has always held a fascination for me. As early as I can remember I had been admonished by my mother not to eat its shiny purple black berries, as attractive as they are. The lure and promise of a succulent mouthful of sweet berry juice was negated by her warning and I thus have mixed feelings about the plant. Throughout the summer I watched its colors change from a tender early green of its shoots to the mature dark green of its leaves and the red and purple-black of its berries and stems. I kept sketches and photos of the plants and used a large collection of leaves, stems, berries and roots as reference.
Pokeweed has a wide range, growing from Maine to Florida as well as in California. Among indigenous peoples on both coasts, it had diverse uses and multiple preparations. All parts of the plant were used, though the seeds and roots were especially valued for their medicine properties. Infusions made from the berry was used to treat dysentery. Berry wine was used for rheumatism. Crushed raw berries were rubbed on skin lumps and the sore breasts of nursing mothers. The berries sometimes were eaten as an analgesic. From the root, poultices and salves were used on skin ulcers, eczema, bunions, bruises, sprains, swollen joints, poison ivy rashes, and warts. Steam from a root decoction was used to ease hemorrhoids. The leaves of the plant were also used for skin problems and rheumatism. In addition, they were used as an emetic, a laxative, and a blood building tonic. (www.herb.umd.umich.edu )
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin wrote about pokeweed to a Frenchman who was translating his works. Franklin described the pokeweed's berries as "large as peas: the skin is black but it contains a crimson juice." The juice, he wrote, "thickened by evaporation in the sun" was "a specific remedy for cancers" that "caused great pain but some persons were said to be cured. I am not quite certain of the facts; all I know is that Dr. Colden had a good opinion of the remedy." (Franklin, p.261)
The 1837 handbook, The Family Nurse, gives the following preparation instructions: "The purple berries should be crushed, squested through a cloth, and left in the air till the juice diminished two thirds; then simmered with fresh lard. Used in some stages of salt-rheum, itch and malignant ulcers. It has somewhat caustic effect, tending to produce an eschar or scabby covering." (Childs, p.130)
Modern research indicates that pokeweed has healing potential. A protein isolated from the leaves called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP) appears to be effective against such viruses as herpes and HIV and as an anti–tumor agent. Studies show PAP, in combination with other drugs may be useful in treating osteosarcomas, some soft tissue sarcomas, prostate, breast and ovarian cancers.
At the same time, however, as with so many healing plants, pokeweed is a double-edged sword. While it appears to have healing properties, Foster and Duke in their field guide to medicinal plants warn in bold type that all parts of the plant are poisonous, and that plant juices “can cause dermatitis and even damage chromosomes.” (Foster and Duke, p.56) The American Cancer Society recommends thoroughly cooking the young leaves (known commonly as “poke salad”) to reduce its toxicity and goes on to warn: “The effects of eating the uncooked or improperly prepared pokeweed can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, blurred vision, confusion, dermatitis, dizziness, and weakness. Convulsions, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, heart block, and death may occur. Animals can also die from eating pokeweed.” (www.cancer.org)