Herbal Adventures with Susun Weed - Poke (Phytolacca Americana)

October 29th 2011 - copyright- Susun S Weed

As you may recall, I am astride a horse, riding through Provence, singing to the scotch broom, inhaling lavender, rosemary and thyme, drinking teas of elder blossom or linden flowers, swigging St Joan's wort tincture, rubbing myself with Joan's wort oil, spraying myself with yarrow tincture, and hoarding my osha root in case there's an emergency. What else is in my herbal first-aid kit? With the abundance of herbs around me, what else did I bring to France? What herbs do I carry with me whenever I leave home?

Of the herbs in my herbal first-aid kit, osha is the rarest one I use. But poke is the most dangerous, and comfrey the most controversial.

Poke plants (Phytolacca americana) are large, showy perennials. Living as they do year after year, they accumulate a huge, spindle-shaped root. In southern Virginia I once met an ancient poke plant whose root top was over two feet from one side to the other. The flashy, hot pink stalks, leaves that are big and smooth all over (edges too), and bunches of nearly black berries held at eye level make this weed easy to recognize and remember. All parts of the poke plant can be used: some for medicine and some for food.

Yes, even though poke is considered a violent poisoner, people eat it. The leaves, cooked in several changes of water, are a specialty green below the Mason-Dixon line where supermarkets carry canned poke sallet (or sallat). To make your own sallet:

§ Collect very young poke greens as early as possible in the season (late April to mid-May in the Catskills, as early as February in Georgia).
§ Pour boiling water over the greens and boil them one minute. Discard water.
§ Add more boiling water and again boil the greens for one minute. Discard the water.
§ Do this at least twice more before attempting to eat the greens.

If you fail to leach out the poisonous compounds - or are foolish enough to attempt to eat poke leaves raw - your mouth and throat will feel like they are on fire, you may vomit, and you will no doubt have copious diarrhea.

Magenta is the color of crushed poke berries. Good for body paint and great for ink. (Ammonia, used carefully, is the fixative.) The small seeds in the berries are very poisonous. Lucky for us, they are too hard for our teeth to break open. I have had pokeberry jam (no worse than blackberry jam, that is, seedy) and pokeberry jelly (ah, no seeds) and pokeberry pie (seedy). Since children are attracted to poke plants and since the berries leave telltale stains on children's mouths and since many parents are frightened if their child eats anything wild, and since medical personnel know little about poke except that it is poisonous, lots of kids have their stomach pumped (for no good reason, since they can't break open the seeds either) after investigating the taste of poke berries.

I keep a supply of dried poke berries on hand. One or two berries, swallowed whole with water, as if you were taking a pill, relieves the pain of rheumatism and arthritis. I always caution students to experiment with poke in the safety of their homes first. What is poisonous in large doses is often psychoactive in smaller doses, and such is certainly the case with poke. You may find yourself seeing the world a little differently after ingesting poke berries … nothing so blatant as hallucinations, but definitely an altered state. I pick and dry fresh poke berries each year as they are especially easily infected with insect larva and thus don't keep for a long time.

But the part of the poke plant that I carry with me in my first-aid kit is the root - tincture of the fresh root to be exact. That's where the poisons are the most concentrated. Need I say great care is needed in wise use of this remedy? I dig only one poke root every decade or so, for the dose I use is minuscule. I choose a root that is at least three years old (the standard for digging any perennial root), rinse the soil from it, chop it coarsely, and tincture it for a minimum of six weeks in 100 proof vodka. (No, 80 proof won't work. And, yes, it must be a fresh root, as drying seems to remove the active properties.)

I take a dose of one drop - yes, only one drop - once or twice a day to kick my immune system into high gear. Poke root tincture contains compounds that can harm the kidneys if it is taken continuously. I reserve its use for emergencies and do not consider it especially helpful to the immune system. Isn't it well named? It pokes the immune system and speeds up pokey lymphatic drainage. I have known a single drop to reverse chronic infections that have simmered for years, getting more and more resistant to drugs. Of course, poke root tincture, is used by those with cancer, sometimes with astonishing results. (See Breast Cancer? Breast Health! the Wise Woman Way for lots more information on using poke to counter cancer.)

My friend, Isla Burgess, director of the Waikato Center for Herbal Studies, finds poke root tincture a powerful ally for women dealing with fibroids or endometriosis. She used it herself with excellent results. Her doses were larger, but built up gradually over a period of days, as I suggest for those dancing with cancer. In extreme situations, an individual may be able to use doses of 15 drops a day. I know of some instances where doses of 30 drops a day were used, but this usually creates unwelcome side effects.

I carry poke with me as insurance - on the off chance that I may be exposed in my travels to some new and potentially deadly bug. Had I been in Beijing when SARS broke out, I would have taken it. I would not take poke as a precaution; it is far too strong to be used that way. Only if I knew that I was likely to have been exposed to the pathogen would I use it (one drop twice a day; if I felt symptoms, I would increase to four times a day or more, as seemed reasonable at the time). How reassuring to know that a simple home-made tincture of a common garden weed can give my immune system the boost it needs when confronted with danger.

An herbal first aid kit may seem insignificant in the face of the troubles in our nation and in the world, but it is a step toward health independence and - I believe - a step toward peace. Instead of making war on weeds like poke, I love them. Instead of making war on nature, I take her as a guide. Instead of making war on myself when I have an injury or illness, a problem or a pain, I nourish myself toward ever greater health. Green blessings surround us, uplifting our hearts and bringing joy even in trying and uncertain times. May the dancing green woman fill you with peace.

Legal Disclaimer: This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner with a specific formula for you. All material in this article is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care. Exercise self-empowerment by seeking a second opinion.

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