18 November 2013
Late fall is the best time to harvest roots. One of my apothecary favorites is a low-dose botanical - the root of the Poke plant. Often considered toxic, I discovered that in the South poke root has traditionally been used in tiny doses as an immune stimulant. 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).
Herbs can rival the effectiveness of antibiotics, and they're generally much gentler on the body. Some folks turn to goldenseal for this purpose, but it is 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.
Poke root is best harvested in the fall, after the above ground portion of the plant has died back for the winter. This is when the plant is the most medicinal and the least toxic. 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, the next step -- if you've decided to give poke a try -- is drawing out those medicinal properties. The best way to do that is to make a tincture (alcohol extract). To make a tincture with fresh roots, first wash the root, then chop it into small pieces (using gloves). 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 plant material. The resulting milky liquid is remarkably mild-looking and tasting, considering the punch it packs.
Poke tincture is so powerful that it's taken by the DROP. Begin with 1-3 drops (using a dropper, of course). Wait 24 hours. If that doesn't seem to help, add 1 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 3-5 drops per day, while others can take 25-50 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), you may encounter more severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
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.
So if you allowed some poke plants to thrive in your yard or garden this year, you have the opportunity to dig up a root to try out this powerful medicine. We give thanks this season for poke root and the many wild, abundant, free medicinal weeds that grow right around us!