Old Medicinal Uses
by Corinna Wood
first published in the Mountain Xpress
Growing up in the Northeast, I loved playing with the purple pokeberries, painting designs on my skin. My parents allowed this, though they made it clear that I shouldn't eat the berries of this "poisonous, invasive weed." The huge poke plants were such a bane in their garden that they would actually tie a rope around the roots and use a Jeep to pull them out!
So when I moved to the South, I was surprised to hear a number of people report that their grandmothers always ate poke as a spring green. Intrigued, I discovered that poke root has traditionally been used in tiny doses as an immune stimulant. And swallowing one berry a day is an old treatment for arthritis. This powerful plant actually has a wide range of medicinal uses -- but you have to treat it with respect or risk unpleasant side effects (see below).
As it turns out, there's a long history here in the mountains of using this common "weed" as a potherb. But don't make the all-too-common mistake of confusing "poke sallit" (the English word for cooked greens) with "poke salad." DON'T EAT POKE IN A SALAD! It's considered safe ONLY when boiled in three changes of water (traditionally with some pork or "fatback"). And it should be harvested for cooking greens ONLY when the plant is less than a foot tall.
I've cooked poke this way a few times. It was certainly tasty (especially with the fatback!), but I was still a bit mystified. Why all the focus on poke? This is a time of year when many wild greens are abundant -- dandelion, chickweed and nettles are among my favorites. And with these, you don't need to toss out the cooking water (and a lot of nutrients with it). But I do know folks who say they feel a powerful energy from eating the poke greens.
My favorite way to use poke is to make a tincture from the root for stimulating the immune system. Herbs can rival the effectiveness of antibiotics, and they're generally much gentler on the body. Many herbalists turn to goldenseal for this purpose, but it's an endangered species. Poke, on the other hand, is a weed -- the problem is not having too little of it, but too much. And for most purposes, poke is at least as good, if not better.
Pokeroot is best dug up in the fall, after the plant has died back for the winter. This is when the plant is the most medicinal and the least toxic. The next best time to dig the roots is in the early spring, when the leaves are just coming out (as long as you're sure what you're picking!).
As anyone who's ever tried to pull up a poke plant knows, getting anything but the smallest roots out of the ground is a project. They range in size from a large carrot to a construction cone. Fortunately, just one small root will make enough medicine to last you and your loved ones for years -- proving once again that there's no lack of good medicine all around us.
Once you've dug up the root (and parked the Jeep), the next step -- if you've decided to give pokeweed a try -- is drawing out those medicinal properties. The best way to do that is to make a tincture (alcohol extract). Wash the root, chop it into small pieces, fill a jar with the plant material, and then add enough 100-proof alcohol to cover the roots. Leave it on your counter for six weeks, then strain out the roots. The resulting milky liquid is remarkably mild-looking and -tasting, considering the punch it packs.
Poke is so powerful that it's taken by the drop. Begin with one to three drops (using a dropper, of course). Wait 24 hours. If that doesn't seem to help, add one drop per day to the dosage (and that's drops, not droppersful!).
Individuals show widely varying tolerance for poke. Some people can't handle more than three or five drops per day, while others can take 25 or 50 drops with no adverse effects. The side effects of poke include mental unclarity, spaciness and out-of-body feelings. If you notice such feelings, it means you've found your tolerance level, so back off to a lower dosage. If you take way too much (such as mistaking droppersful for drops, which some people have done!), you may encounter more severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
When I was using poke to treat Lyme disease a number of years ago, I found that after taking 10 drops per day for several weeks, I started feeling unclear, spacy and disconnected, as if I weren't really in my body. I cut the dosage back to five drops and the side effects vanished, but the tincture was still very effective in helping resolve the Lyme disease. Remember, everyone's tolerance and needs are different.
Over the years, I've found poke to be invaluable as an herbal alternative to antibiotics when immune or lymphatic stimulation is needed. For many generations, this plant has helped people with immune issues ranging from sore throat to breast cancer. And of course, there are times when antibiotics are called for -- so when in doubt, consult your doctor or herbalist.
In my community, poke tincture is a favorite for sore throats, strep throat, severe colds and respiratory infections. It's also used for infected gums, swollen lymph glands and breast cysts. Studies in Germany and the United States are even finding positive results with HIV, cancer and lymphoma. In addition, it's very effective in treating genital herpes -- taking just a few drops when the tingling begins usually prevents the blister phase entirely and reduces the frequency of outbreaks.
Poke root can also be made into an oil simply by substituting oil for alcohol. Any cooking oil will work, but olive oil is my favorite because of its high resistance to rancidity. And by melting in some beeswax (which gives it a creamy consistency), the oil can be made into a balm or salve. Both the salve and the oil are also used externally to dissolve lumps, bumps, growths and tumors. And many people find them helpful when applied externally to swollen lymph glands, sore throats or breast lumps.
Pokeberries are useful, too -- and not just for body paint. (This paint, by the way, is quite safe; it's only the seeds inside that are toxic, and then only when chewed.) In Appalachian folk medicine, the berries are swallowed as a treatment for arthritis and for immune stimulation -- one berry (either fresh or dried) is the equivalent of one drop of root tincture.
Since the seeds are the toxic part, you just spit them out. And even if you swallow some seeds, don't worry -- they're extremely difficult to break open with your teeth and will come out the other end intact. (That's how poke spreads, in fact -- birds love to eat the berries, and then the seeds spread through their droppings.) Although poke proliferates by seed, the plants are perennial, and the roots will grow larger every year.
So if you find yourself cursing this "dangerous, noxious weed" in your yard or garden this spring, just remember that if you let a few plants thrive until fall, they can reward you with some very powerful medicine -- not to mention beautiful purple berries that make a delightful body paint.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.