Sunday, October 07, 2007


Each spring, foragers of wild edible plants set out in search of spring greens. They generally collect the first tender leaves of dandelions, purslane, wild mustards and lamb's quarters, but the prized plant for the steaming pot of spring greens is pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Once the initial leaves are removed, more come up; fresh greens can be secured all spring if you're the one who located the plant. In the South, locals usher in spring with poke salat (not salad, like the song. I've also seen it spelled "salatt"), a scrumptious pot of greens that taste a lot like spicy mustards drenched in butter.

Preparation of pokeweed requires diligence. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans if eaten raw. Cook poke leaves in two batches of salted water; if eaten raw, they cause severe stomach distress. The stem of the young plant can be cooked like asparagus. In Louisiana kitchens, the stems are cut into rounds and fried like okra. Once the stem starts turning bright red, it is no longer edible.

The dark berries that suspend like grapes from the red stems every fall were once used to darken Portugese ports. They apparently lent such a bad flavor to the sweet wine that the use of poke berries was outlawed. Jan Phillips, the patient, dare-devil author of Wild Edibles of Missouri once used poke berries to color an icing for a cake, but advises others against using them because they taste bad.

In every group of plant enthusiasts I've belonged to, there's always at least one person who is really into mushrooms, one really into ferns and one or two who are nuts about wild edibles. Wildflower walks are interrupted with the instructions on how to prepare spring ephemerals for the table, how many thousands of plants can be made into tea, or how to make flour out of hickory nuts. In modern times, with cultivated food widely available in most communities and our natural communities feeling stress from every possible direction, I think harvesting native plants is a little irresponsible. Just knowing that milkweed can be eaten raw or that reindeer lichen can be used as a substitute for flour should be rewarding enough. Milkweed, as one measly example, is significantly more important as food for wildlife than novelty food for humans.

Anyway, I have a huge pokeweed plant that is growing among my morning glories and that sad, failed attempt at growing Thompson seedless grapes. The berries are ripening now. I could have had fresh greens all spring, if I wanted them. I have ignored my pokeweed all year, much to the dismay of my superior who regularly disdains my yard as "full of weeds." I always assumed that the rich black berries must be a great find for wildlife. I listen more to my friend Charlotte Seidenberg, whose The Wildlife Garden: Planning Backyard Habitats has been more of a guiding force in my gardening than any book on wild edibles:
The 6 inch racemes of white to purplish flowers are followed in the fall by dark purple fruit eaten by many birds including bluebirds, cardinals, thrashers, thrushes, waxwings, doves, and mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and foxes. Pokeweed reseeds rampantly. Every part of the plant is poisonous to humans.

I can't imagine all the trial and error that goes into discovering the toxicity of native plants. If you're into eating plants from Southern woods, check out Dr. Charles Allen's latest offering, Edible Plants of the Gulf South. For what it's worth, he grows his own.

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