Pokeweed is practically an ideal plant for the one who would forage for food. Foraging it is … easy as pie.
Pokeweed is easy to recognize, harvest and cook…
The other day I was getting my lunch ready, to take to work. Mind you, I usually do this before the sun comes up. I realized that I didn’t have any veggies in the fridge, so I grabbed a headlamp and went to a weedy area on our property. Within minutes I had gathered plenty of pokeweed, “easy as pie.” I cooked it up while making breakfast and had a feast of greens with my lunch.
Pokeweed goes by a number of names.
It’s scientific name is Phytolacca americana. I’ve heard it called “Poke,” “Poke salad, and, of course “Pokeweed.” It grows in Mexico. I’ve observed it there, in several states. The only name I learned for it in Mexico was Huaparón (pronounced Waw-pah-roan.) There I observed it was a purple colored variant of my beloved Pokeweed. I suspect that Huaparón is not actually Spanish, but rather the name used in the Totonac Indian language, as I can’t find the term with an Internet search.
Pokeweed is easy to identify.
One only needs to see it a couple of times, and from then on it’s unmistakable. In winter, the plants leave large pithy stalks, which are especially common along fence rows. When the poke first starts sprouting in spring it’s common to find the dry stalks right there too. An established plant sends up some nice sized shoots. These shoots, when only a foot long, or under, are what you want to harvest. In the summer when it is too late to be eating pokeweed, the plant produce racemes of dark purplish berries.
In mid summer Poke produces racemes of berries, which will stain hands and clothing. This is NOT the time to eat pokeweed.
A helpful identifier of poke, besides the general appearance of the leaves and stems, is that when cut, the tender shoots are almost fiberless. They’re easy to cut. Once they get about 2′ tall, one will find that the bottom of the shoot will start to become hollow. I have no proof of it, but I have always trimmed the hollow part off and discarded it, considering it to be getting too old for cooking.
Pokeweed is easy to cook, but be sure you do it correctly.
When cooking poke, be sure to start out with young shoots. You’ll probably also want to cook it considerably longer than you’re accustomed to cooking other greens. Poke has something bitter in it, which needs to be cooked out. Some just boil the shoots for 15 minutes. Others boil for a full minute and then change the water, boiling again for 10-15 minutes. I’ve done it without a change of water, if I boil for 10-15 minutes, and not had a problem. If you don’t boil it enough, you’ll notice a bitterness on your tongue. If you taste/feel this, stop and boil the greens some more.
When first trying poke, or any other wild food, be cautious.
Cook it longer and eat just a little bite or two, at first. Some folk show more sensitivity to poke than others. Be sure to only eat tender shoots, not another other part of the plant. A Google search on pokeweed might scare a person. There are various entries which say that Poke is poisonous. Yet, people in the South have eaten poke greens for hundreds, probably thousands of years. In the Cherokee Heritage Center, near our home, guides have informed visitors that pokeweed is not poisonous. Oftentimes, they do this by eating some of it, raw, as they say this.
Try it young and tender and well boiled. To be safe, use two changes of water.
If all goes well for you, then you might try modifications of cooking technique. I’d stick with the “young and tender” part. Don’t experiment with that.
Excellent article on Poke: note their disclaimer at the end. That’s important. The Grownetwork on Poke
How good is Pokeweed?
My father was a master gardener, long before anyone thought of starting such a certificate program. He was also a very picky eater, not eating many of the veggies he produced. Yet, when I first started harvesting pokeweed and my mother fixed it for the family, my dad loved it. Henceforth my folks sent me out every spring to scavenge poke greens, which my Mom froze for use throughout the year.