Wildflower Wednesday: A dangerous delight

Warning: Please do NOT attempt to follow the recipe instructions published here. Pokeweed, or Phytolacca americana, is a highly poisonous plant, shoots, stems, leaves, flowers and berries. This recipe is intended only to provide information about the historical uses of this plant. Wren M. Allen and Wrenaissance Art are NOT liable for the negative and harmful results that may occur from cooking or consuming this highly POISONOUS plant.

While visiting my mother in August, I saw this plant with attractive pendant flowers and berries growing near the fence between her yard and the cow pasture. My mother told me it was pokeweed, or poke.

Pokeweed has a red stem and bright green leaves.

Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is a highly poisonous wild plant that is valued for its culinary use in the early spring.

Pokeweed, or poke, is a highly poisonous plant that was much used by early settlers in the early spring, when fresh vegetables were scarce. Cooking instructions were detailed, in order to neutralize the deadly poison within.

Poke berry and blossoms on the Cross,

Birds just love to eat poke berries, but they are NOT safe for human consumption!

In pioneer times, the first pokeweed sprouts in the spring were cooked and served as a welcome fresh green dish after the long winter months of few or no fresh vegetables on the table. I asked my mother to recite the cooking instructions for poke as her family and neighbors used to make it in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Please DO NOT use these instructions for actually cooking wild pokeweed. They are published here ONLY for historical interest, and NOT for use in the kitchen!

Poke Salad, or Poke Salet:

  • Early in the spring, pick the very first shoots of pokeweed that sprout. A full washtub of shoots will be needed to make a batch that will serve 4 to 6 people. Clean and separate the leaves and stalks, saving only the leaves.
  • Put leaves in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil.
  • Cook for about 20 minutes, or until tender.
  • Drain and rinse well.
  • Cover with water a second time. Bring to a boil and cook at a boil for about 5 minutes.
  • Drain and rinse well.
  • Cover with water and bring to a boil a third time. Cook at a boil for about 5 minutes.
  • Drain and rinse well.
  • Chop.
  • Heat a large fry pan.
  • Place chopped bacon in fry pan and begin to cook.
  • Add thrice-cooked pokeweed and sauté well in the bacon fat, until well-cooked.
  • Serve with beans and cornbread. The cooking juices, or pot liquor (likker), from the fry pan are especially delicious.
  • The triple cook/drain/rinse cycle is VITALLY important in order to neutralize and remove the poisons from the leaves and make them fit for human consumption!
Detail view of pokeweed blossoms and green berries.

In pioneer days, pokeweed was one of the few fresh vegetables available in the early spring. Today, we can pick up spinach, or other green, leafy vegetables year-round from the supermarket!

According to my mother, pokeweed shoots/stalks were also cooked and pickled, but she didn’t know how they were prepared, as her family never made them. Poke salad was canned commercially and sold in grocery stores as late as the 1950s and 1960s in the American South. There were restaurants and cafes that served poke salad in the spring.

Update: Check out Gail Eichelberger’s Clay and Limestone blog for more Wildflower Wednesday links!

Resources (besides my mother!):

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