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MidTown Farmer’s Market footnote: How toxic is poke salad?

I’ve always heard about eating poke salad, and also heard that one had to know exactly when to pick it (early) and how to prepare it because the mature plants were poisonous.

I was mildly curious, but only mildly.

Today at the Mid-Town Farmers Market in Oxford, one of the vendors had (along with other quite lush looking greens) bags of poke salad.  I decided to look it up and see what was involved.

Well, the extension service in Alabama is pretty firm:  Don’t eat poke salad.  They cite a food scientist at Auburn, who is carrying out a bit of a campaign against eating the plant.  On another state extension newsletter, she notes:

“The roots, berries, seeds and mature stems and leaves of pokeweed are poisonous,” says Extension Food Scientist Jean Weese. There are at least three different types of poison in this plant — phytolaccatoxin, triterpene saponins, an alkaloid, phytolaccin, and histamines.

She describes what apparently is the traditional cooking method, designed to remove the toxins from the leaves:

Most people boil the shoots and leaves for 20-30 minutes, first in salt water and again in clean water, then eat the plant much like spinach.

“The boiling process removes some of the toxins but certainly not all of them,” says Weese. I suggest that people avoid this plant no matter how many times your mother or grandmother may have prepared it in the past and no matter how good it tasted. Why would you want to eat something that we know is toxic when there are so many other non-toxic plants out there we can eat?”

The American Cancer society has this to say:

All parts of the pokeweed are poisonous, particularly the roots. The leaves and stems are next in toxicity, and the berries have the smallest amount of poison. However, children have been poisoned by eating raw pokeweed berries, and some have died. The practice of brewing pokeweed plant parts with hot water to make tea has caused poisoning. Thoroughly cooking the plant reduces its toxicity. The effects of eating the uncooked or improperly prepared plant can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headaches, blurred vision, confusion, dermatitis, dizziness, and weakness. Convulsions, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, heart block (a blockage of the electrical impulses that stimulate the heart to contract), and death may occur. Animals can also die of toxic effects from eating pokeweed, although it does not happen often.

Since, like me, this may have made you decide to only experience eating poke salad vicariously, here’s an account of a forager in Ohio experimenting with eating it, and describing its taste.

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