Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poking Around In The Garden

A comment by CherB on my recent post about pokeweed, where she mentions that her Dad used to give her pokeberries to chew on when she was a child (she obviously survived to adulthood), got me interested in finding out just how toxic pokeweed really is... after all, the birds eat its berries.
It turns out that the berries are the least toxic part of the plant, then the stems and leaves, with the worst being the roots (which makes sense from a plant survival standpoint; you don't want the birds dropping dead before they can spread your seeds about, whereas the plant doesn't want anything eating its roots).
Apparently it's a little hazy just how poisonous the plant is; mountain folk in the Appalachians, of course, made "poke salad" (sallet, salit) every spring, by boiling the new pokeweed shoots in water, which they changed two or three times to get rid of the poison. The plant is said to become more toxic as it matures. There is even still a Polk Salad Festival every spring in Harriman, Tennessee (I'll be busy that weekend, though the Polk Salad Queen looks cute). The festival's name, with the conversion of "poke" to "polk", comes from the song Polk Salad Annie, which Elvis covered. The "polk" might originally come from the fact that in the Presidential election of 1844, supporters of James K. Polk pinned pokeweed leaves to their coats to show their support for Polk. This is considered one of the first Presidential campaign "buttons".
Pokeweed berries were used to make pie, so heat does destroy the toxicity. The berries were also used as an early form of ink in this country (thus the plant was also called "inkberry"). Astonishingly, the Declaration Of Independence was written with this ink, as were some letters written home by Civil War soldiers; after drying, the ink is dark brown.
Pokeweed poisoning symptoms begin with vomiting and diarrhea, may proceed to convulsions, and if death occurs, it's from respiratory paralysis. So many of nature's creatures (like butterflies and tropical tree frogs), advertise the fact that they are poisonous by being gaudy. I wonder if the pokeweed, with its neon pink stems, and reddish stalks, and its large, hulking size, does the same?

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Interesting post. I had wild poke weed all over my hillside when we moved in many years ago and I had no idea what it was, just that it was tenacious! I finally figured out that it was a weed and tried my best to eradicate it, but it still manages to 'poke' up every once in a while.
So far the only solution I have found is to pull them up when they are young. Once they are big enough it is impossible to get rid of the underground system without a lot of digging.
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