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Poke, my favorite plant

2011 July 21
by Robert

by Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

I am amused by humorist Andy Borowitz’s annual description of “pointless filler columns,” submitted by columnists when they take out-of-town breaks. He describes the characteristics of such pieces as rehashing older columns, using lengthy quotes and repetition throughout the column.

Poke stems are brilliant in late summer and fall. Photo by Ken Moore

I can’t imagine serious writers would actually stoop to those tactics! I’m about to take an out-or-town break, but before I do, I’m taking the time to describe my favorite plant, poke.

As described in Paul Green’s Plant Book, “Pokeweed, pokeberry, poke, is found almost everywhere from Canada and the Dakotas down to Florida. The young shoots are often used for salad or a substitute for asparagus. One of the best folk remedy plants in the Cape Fear River Valley. … An ointment made from the root was good for all kinds of skin diseases. … Indian runners on long journeys used to chew the leaves to quench the thirst, so it was said. Pokeroot tea was especially good for hog cholera. The leaves and the berries (sometimes called pigeon berries) and the roots are purgative and narcotic. A tincture of the ripe berries has been used as a popular remedy for chronic rheumatism.”

Poke stories abound. Green includes a wild story about poke used as a poison ivy cure. I suspect you won’t try the cure, but you will never forget the tale.
While most folks frown on common pokeweed or poke salad, Phytolacca americana, sophisticated gardeners like my friend Sally Heiney admire and grow this giant native perennial.

Every year, Sally and I engage in “my-poke’s-bigger-than-your-poke” discussions that require regular garden visitations to determine who gets the annual bragging rights.

Poke is my favorite plant, striking in all seasons. My favorite aspect is probably the stem. Poke’s brilliant red stems in late summer and early fall literally stop me in my tracks. There is no more spectacular effect in either the wild or a managed landscape.

I love everything about poke. Tiny pendulous flowers bloom throughout the growing season. A closer look reveals white petals surrounding emerald-green centers, contrasting with pink- to burgundy-colored stems. What color combos!

Poke flower and berry clusters dazzle with color until frost. Photo by Ken Moore

When those little emerald-green centers mature into shiny-black berries, resident mockingbirds and catbirds compete for them on a daily basis.

Even in the dormant months, the tan-colored stems of poke remain an interesting architectural feature. I never cut stems down until the emergence of the lush green leaves at the base of the plant in the early spring. Then we refer to it as poke salad. Visit the farmers’ market in early spring to get cooking strategies from some of the old-timers. Make certain you note the details, because poke is also poisonous, so you have to know what you are doing to safely enjoy this culinary treat.

Poke is also medicinal. Wish I had the space to relate my annual conversation with a friend who collects pint jars of dried berries for her 90-year-old aunt, who concocts a special tea to relieve pain from arthritis and rheumatism. But don’t you try it until you know what you’re doing!

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com.

Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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