Farmers say that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place and there's truth in that. Jewelweed, for example, look lovely in hedgerows, but gangly in a garden.
Unlike cultivated plants that fuss over the right conditions, weeds are opportunists just trying to survive. My issue has always been with the bullies that come out of nowhere and threaten to take over the neighborhood. They just don't play nice.
I'm all for giving Darwinian theories a stage in the wild, but not in my gardens.
Of all of the weeds that I've battled over the years, I'd classify pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) among the most obnoxious. Certainly, it would top the tenacious list for its long taproots that reach far and dig deep. Pokeweed waits until you turn your back to go from innocuous sprouts to monstrous copses that reach ten feet in height.
Pokeweed, though, is not without its charms. It is a native plant, so that gives it a right to stake its claim. Its long panicles of white flowers are attractive and even smell mildly sweet— and I'm a sucker for scented flowers. Songbirds love the deep purple berries whose juice was used as ink during the Civil War. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with poke ink and remains legible after two and a quarter centuries. So there's that. But all of those virtues aside, there is one other that undeniably endears it to me: pokeweed is edible.
Yes, pokeweed has a long and rich history as a wild food, but it is also potentially poisonous!
In the rural south, the young leaves (known as poke sallet, or polk salet) were collected in the spring and cooked in three changes of water to leech out the toxins, of which there are at least three different types. I can only guess at how many mountain folk fell seriously ill after consuming the highly toxic roots, and mature stems and leaves and eventually realizing that only the thoroughly cooked young shoots and leaves were safe to consume.
Despite the risks, the regional appeal of poke sallet was strong enough to inspire a folk song "Polk Salad Annie", recorded by Elvis, and a commercially canned product by The Allen Canning Company, who ceased production in 2000 because of "the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke". Today, pokeweed is still celebrated in annual Poke Sallet Festivals that take place in Harlan, KY and Gainesboro, TN, and its legacy lives on in a new generation of foragers and interest in historical foods.
The internet is full of old-timers poetic waxings about pokeweed. But for every fond memory, there is an equally passionate warning against its consumption. Jean Weese, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, has this to say:
"The boiling process removes some of the toxins but certainly not all of them. I suggest that people avoid this plant no matter how many times your mother or grandmother may have prepared it in the past and no matter how good it tasted. Why would you want to eat something that we know is toxic when there are so many other non-toxic plants out there we can eat?"
It's a good question— one I've asked myself many times.
Plants are fascinating on so many levels. As the primary source of phytochemicals, they have the ability to do harm or to heal. It's not unusual for one plant to do both. Pokeweed contains chemical compounds that can make us sick, yet it is sold as a dietary supplement. And an antiviral protein unique to pokeweed (PAP) is being studied (and showing promise) in treatments of cancer, herpes, and HIV.
Minor ailments aside, I'm a physically healthy person (or so my doctor tells me). And let's assume that I'm also mentally sound, if only because I have no overwhelming desire to poison myself. Why then would I knowingly consume something that can harm me? It's not a decision I make lightly. My approach is careful and methodical:
- Research, research, research. Proceed only when confident.
- At first, take small bite, chew, spit out, wait 24 hours for side effects.
- If there are none, go back for another small bite, chew, swallow, wait another 24 hours.
At the very least, it's a three day proposition. Only then would I consume a moderate meal of any questionable plant. But that's just the how. The why is more complicated.
pokeweed hush puppies ✢ smoked ham mousse ✢ buttermilk pokeweed puree
Eating plants that were prepared and enjoyed by people of a different time, place or culture matters to me because it connects us. Maybe that's purely idealistic, but it's this romantic attraction to food that keeps me engaged on an emotional level.
On another level, it appeals to my sense of discovery. Throughout history there have been food pioneers who consumed strange things for the first time and forged paths of deliciousness for the rest of us. Consider the brave individuals who dared to bite into a pungent gnarled root of horseradish or sip a foul-smelling fermented beverage before anyone else had. That would not have been me! When it comes to consuming potentially toxic substances, my curiosity is trumped by reason and altruism by self-preservation. My sense of discovery extends only to foods that are new-to-me, and must first be positively identified and known to be edible.
Perhaps, what most compels me to seek out and eat plants like pokeweed is simply to taste it. Every new flavor that I experience adds to my catalog of flavors— a tool that is more useful than a sharp knife. Flavor is the foundation and defining factor of any good dish. Without it, technique is gimmickery and composition is arbitrary. A chefs repetoire of flavors is no different than a painters palette or a writers vocabulary; diversity allows for a broader range of expression.
Cooked pokeweed has a mild vegetal flavor that's hard to describe. Who knows, maybe someday I'll eat something that I can say "tastes like pokeweed".