Pokeweed, American (Pytolacca americana) *No CARegular price $3.98
This plant, native to most parts of Eastern North American and the midwest, is a beautiful species with a variety of uses, yet often condemned as a weed. Pytolacca americana has a rich history, with many common names deriving from its ubiquity throughout most of the continental US— ‘Poke Salad,’ ‘Inkberry,’ ‘Pigeonberry.’ They are often spread by birds, as the tough outer coatings of their seeds can withstand a bird’s digestive system (this tenacity allows them to be viable for up to 40 years!). As a result of this, the plant can spread rapidly if unchecked, particularly in disturbed soils. It usually grows four to eight feet in height. Pokeweed attracts a variety of fauna, from ruby-throated hummingbirds sipping their nectar, to acting as a host plant for the Giant Leopard moth. Both migratory and non-migratory birds are fond of the lovely clusters of late-ripening berries as autumn or winter nourishment, from Gray Catbirds and Wood Thrushes to Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, and Woodpeckers. Though all parts of this plant are poisonous to humans, there is a tradition, particularly amongst Appalachian folks or those facing food scarcity, of consuming young Pokeweed leaves as a ‘sallit’, made by boiling the plant matter and changing out the water for a long period of time. Though this has been utilized as a survival food, one should not attempt to eat Pokeweed as trace poison will likely remain even after boiling. Brought to Europe in the 1600s, berries of this plant were sometimes used to color wine.
The berries of Pytolacca americana were recorded to have been used as a dye by Indigenous Americans, who decorated their horses with the juice, with its genus translating to mean ‘red dye plant.’ Early American settlers would ferment Pokeberries in hollowed-out pumpkins to make a fabric dye. The array of pigments one can derive from this plant ranges from deep red, purple, mauve, magenta, and pink hues as bright as fuchsia. Due to Pokeweed’s toxicity and ability to leave a stain on one’s skin, it is recommended to wear gloves when handling these berries. Take care not to boil your dye if attempting a vibrantly colored result, as it can cause it to turn brown. The dye seems to work most effectively on wool and other animal-based fibers. The fruit was also employed as an ink, and many historical American texts were written with a concoction from this plant.
Though often not celebrated with intentional plantings in modern American gardens, Pokeberry has naturalized in England and has found a place in landscape beautification there. Inkberry also has a history of medicinal use— Delaware people used it as a cardiac stimulant, and many tribes in Virginia utilized this plant as a poultice in treatment of cancer and rheumatism. Rocky Mountain tribal groups applied Pokeweed as a remedy for neurological conditions, epilepsy, and anxiety. Research on this plant as a source of medicine is undergoing.