Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed, also known as American nightshade, cancer jalap, coakum, garget, inkberry, pigeon berry, pocan bush, poke root, pokeweed, redweed, scoke, and red ink plant.  It is native to North America, South America, East Asia, and New Zealand.  The common name comes from the Algonquin term for the plant, pocan, meaning "blood red."

Parts of this plant are highly toxic to livestock and humans, and it is considered a major pest by farmers. Nonetheless, some parts can be used as food, medicine or poison.

Poke is regarded as one of the most important indigenous American plants, and one of the most striking in appearance.  It can reach a height of 10 feet, but is usually only four to six feet.  The central stem, which turns red as the plant matures, is upright and erect early in the season, changing to a spreading, horizontal form later due to the weight of the berries.  White flowers are followed by a deep purple berry, covering the stem in clusters and resembling blackberries, which are a good food source for songbirds.  The plant dies back to the roots each winter. The leaves can reach nine inches in length and are a medium green color with a smooth texture and have an unpleasant odor. 

The Delaware tribes roasted and mashed the root of Pokeweed for use as a blood purifier and stimulant.  They were aware of the toxic properties of poke root and used very small doses.  Other tribes combined it with bittersweet for use as an ointment on chronic sores. The Pamunkey of Virginia treated rheumatism with preparations of the boiled berries.  The Mohegans of Connecticut ate the young shoots in the spring and used poultices of the mashed ripe berries to relieve sore breasts of nursing mothers. 

During the early 1900s, it was a major ingredient in a popular over-the-counter obesity remedy.  A “cancer cure” was prepared by mixing the juice of the leaves or root with gunpowder, and in the Ozark Mountains, Poke was a famous remedy for a variety of parasitic skin afflictions collectively known as “the itch.”  It was used in decoctions as a wash or made into an ointment for eczema, ulcers, scabies, ringworm and other fungus infections.

Some Native American tribes used Pokeweed as a witchcraft medicine, believing that it’s ability to totally purge the body by causing drastic diarrhea and vomiting would also expel bad spirits.

The fruit was made into a bright crimson dye used to stain feathers, arrow shafts, and garments and to decorate their horses and woven baskets.  The United States Declaration of Independence was written using Pokeberry juice, as were many Civil War era letters.

Pokeweed poisonings were common in eastern North America during the 19th century, especially from the use of tinctures as antirheumatic preparations and from ingestion of berries and roots that were mistaken for parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke, or horseradish.  Signs of mild poisoning in humans include severe vomiting about 2 hours after ingestion. In severe cases, convulsions, tachycardia (fast heart rate), dizziness, and coma have been documented. Paralysis of the respiratory organs causes death. Time is critical if pokeweed poisoning is suspected.

Pokeweed is broadly distributed in fields and waste places, and usually found in edge habitats. The seeds do not require stratification and are dispersed by berry-feeding birds. It grows well in sun or shade and readily survives fire due to its ability to resprout from the roots.

Resourses include:

Toni Leland:  http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2361/
Wikipedia:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
HerbNet:  http://www.herbnet.com/

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