Poke root and poke berry medicine
The sight of pokeweed can strike fear into the hearts of mothers—especially if your child, like mine, delights in smearing the berry juice onto their skin on Halloween (fake blood!). Don't worry, we've found that the berry juice externally on the skin is harmless. It is true though that internally, pokeweed can be poisonous—as well as medicinally potent. Poke is a plant that spans both the toxic and medicinal range of properties . . . so yes, you are wise to approach the plant with caution, and armed with information.
I know when I first came to the South, I was surprised to hear a number of people report that their grandmothers always ate poke as a spring green. Intrigued, I discovered that poke root has traditionally been used in tiny doses as an immune stimulant. And swallowing one berry a day is an old treatment for arthritis. This powerful plant actually has a wide range of medicinal uses—but you have to treat it with respect or risk unpleasant side effects (see below).
So, how poisonous is pokeweed?
As it turns out, there's a long history here in the mountains of using this common "weed" as a potherb. But don't make the all-too-common mistake of confusing "poke sallit" (the English word for cooked greens) with "poke salad." DON'T EAT POKE IN A SALAD! It's considered safe ONLY when boiled in three changes of water (traditionally with some pork or "fatback"). And it should be harvested for cooking greens ONLY when the plant is less than a foot tall.
I've cooked poke this way a few times. It was certainly tasty (especially with the fatback!), but I was still a bit mystified. Why all the focus on poke? This is a time of year when many wild greens are abundant—dandelion, chickweed and nettles are among my favorites. And with these, you don't need to toss out the cooking water (and a lot of nutrients with it). But I do know folks who say they feel a powerful energy from eating the poke greens.
My favorite to use pokeweed is to make a tincture from the root for stimulating the immune system. Herbs can rival the effectiveness of antibiotics, and they're generally much gentler on the body. Many herbalists turn to goldenseal for this purpose, but it's an endangered species.
Poke, on the other hand, is a weed—the problem is not having too little of it, but too much. And for most purposes, poke is at least as good, if not better. So I like to keep poke close in my wise woman herbal medicine chest.
When to harvest poke root
Poke root is best dug up in the fall after the plant has died back for the winter. This is when the plant is the most medicinal and the least toxic. The next best time to dig the roots is in the early spring when the leaves are just coming out (as long as you're sure what you're picking!).
As anyone who's ever tried to pull up a poke plant knows, getting anything but the smallest roots out of the ground is a project. They range in size from a large carrot to a construction cone. Fortunately, just one small root will make enough medicine to last you and your loved ones for years—proving once again that there's no lack of good medicine all around us.
For a concise chart on how to make various herbal preparations, check out my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart
Uses for pokeweed
Once you've dug up the root, the next step—if you've decided to give pokeweed a try—is drawing out those medicinal properties. The best way to do that is to make a tincture (alcohol extract). Wash the root, chop it into small pieces, fill a jar with the plant material, and then add enough 100-proof alcohol to cover the roots. Leave it on your counter for six weeks, then strain out the roots. The resulting milky liquid is remarkably mild-looking and -tasting, considering the punch it packs.
Poke is so powerful that it's taken by the drop. Begin with one to three drops (using a dropper, of course). Wait 24 hours. If that doesn't seem to help, add one drop per day to the dosage (and that's drops, not droppersful!).
Individuals show widely varying tolerance for poke. Some people can't handle more than three or five drops per day, while others can take 25 or 50 drops with no adverse effects. The side effects of poke include mental unclarity, spaciness and out-of-body feelings. If you notice such feelings, it means you've found your tolerance level, so back off to a lower dosage. If you take way too much (such as mistaking droppersful for drops, which some people have done!), you may encounter more severe side effects, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
When I was using poke to treat Lyme disease a number of years ago, I found that after taking 10 drops per day for several weeks, I started feeling unclear, spacy and disconnected, as if I weren't really in my body. I cut the dosage back to five drops and the side effects vanished, but the tincture was still very effective in helping resolve the Lyme disease. Remember, everyone's tolerance and needs are different.
Over the years, I've found poke to be invaluable as an herbal alternative to antibiotics when immune or lymphatic stimulation is needed. For many generations, this plant has helped people with immune issues ranging from sore throat to breast cancer. And of course, there are times when antibiotics are called for—so when in doubt, consult your doctor or herbalist.
More health benefits of pokeweed
In my community, poke tincture is a favorite for sore throats, strep throat, severe colds and respiratory infections. It's also used for infected gums, swollen lymph glands and breast cysts. Studies in Germany and the United States are even finding positive results with HIV, cancer and lymphoma.
In addition, it's very effective in treating genital herpes—taking just a few drops when the tingling begins usually prevents the blister phase entirely and reduces the frequency of outbreaks.
Poke root can also be made into an oil simply by substituting oil for alcohol. Any cooking oil will work, but olive oil is my favorite because of its high resistance to rancidity. And by melting in some beeswax (which gives it a creamy consistency), the oil can be made into a balm or salve.
Both the salve and the oil are also used externally to dissolve lumps, bumps, growths and tumors. And many people find them helpful when applied externally to swollen lymph glands, sore throats or breast lumps.
Making poke root oil & salve
Making poke root oil:
- Wash the root
- Chop it into small pieces (Important: wear gloves to protect skin from absorbing the medicine.)
- Leave it out to air dry in a warm place for a few hours, until it is dry to the touch.
- Fill a jar with the chunks of the root, and add oil to cover the roots. (Note: Any oil works. Olive oil resists rancidity.)
- Leave on your counter for six weeks, topping off the oil level as needed to cover the roots.
- After six weeks, strain out the roots.
Making poke root salve:
- Grate a tablespoon of beeswax for each ounce of infused oil.
- Warm the oil on low heat, add the grated beeswax, and stir until melted.
- Pour liquid into a jar and allow to cool and solidify. (Note: if consistency is too hard, remelt and add more infused oil, if too soft, remelt and add more wax.)
For a handy one-pager to hang on your fridge, feel free to download your own copy of my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart. I keep offering this because my students love to refer to this clear chart again and again for the why's and how's of using and making herbal infusions, tinctures, vinegars, salves, and oils.
Poke berry uses
Poke berries are useful, too—and not just for body paint. (This paint, by the way, is quite safe; it's only the seeds inside that are toxic, and then only when chewed, so pokeweed is not poisonous to touch.) In Appalachian folk medicine, the berries are swallowed as a treatment for arthritis and for immune stimulation—one berry (either fresh or dried) is the equivalent of one drop of root tincture.
Since the seeds are the toxic part, you just spit them out. And even if you swallow some seeds, don't worry—they're extremely difficult to break open with your teeth and will come out the other end intact. (That's how poke spreads, in fact—birds love to eat the berries, and then the seeds spread through their droppings.) Although poke proliferates by seed, the plants are perennial, and the roots will grow larger every year.
Pokeweed can be powerful medicine as long as you approach it with caution and use the right applications. Make poke root into a tincture for immune support and experiment with dosing with a single drop (not a dropperful!) at a time. Poke root oil or salve can help dissolve lumps, bumps or alleviate sore lymph nodes.
Use the berries externally for body paint—or exchange your drop of root tincture for one berry a day. If you must try eating pokeweed, only do so in the early spring with leaves from short plants—under one foot tall—after boiling and pouring off the water three times. Remember, treat pokeweed with respect, or risk unpleasant side effects.
If you're looking for poke root medicine or have questions about using poke, I recommend Red Moon Herbs.
And if you find yourself inspired to incorporate more wild plants into your routines, thumb through this guide of mine to inspire the wild woman inside. Or share these wise woman ways with your friends and tap the button below!
Corinna Wood, seasoned teacher and mentor along the wise woman path–from herbs to self love
"I was initiated into the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with inner growth and healing tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings on heart and soul healing draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers––the shoulders on which we stand––to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."