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

  • Bob..and all you poke lovers, I am 85 and have eaten it all my life and love it. Just today..I cooked two pressure cookers full to freeze. Never have known of anyone getting sick from it and I live in the country so know all my
    neighbors eat it too. Will fry the stalks like okra, and have been told a little corn starch in the flour/meal mixture helps the coating stick better.
    Happy eating!

  • Allene, you are one of the smart ones for sure. I have pickled the stalks many times and they are delicious also. The one thing I do about that is use the younger stalks, The ones that the center is green. I don’t use the ones that have the milky color inside only because of the looks. As I said before, I let one or two of mine that grow under my steps live until frost so the berries can fall off and they grow new poke the next spring. I always eat the leaf’s of these in about Oct.. You’re 85 and I’m closer to 83 than 82. My daddy loved poke and he lived to be 90. I ate my last frozen pkg. about a wk. ago but this yrs. poke is doing good and I will be pickin’ it in a few. days.

  • Waymon Vest

    I will be 80 in Oct. I have eaten Poke Greens all my life. My father lived to 102 my Mother to 96. They ate Poke Greens all their life. Many friends, Neighbors and Visitors have eaten Poke Greens at our house as long as I can remember. For some, it was the first time they had eaten it. Never known of anyone getting sick from eating it. My folks said that they never heard of it being poison until the late 1930′s or 1940′s. I saw it in a newspaper in the late 1940 and into the late 1950′s. NO ONE ever claimed the article. The stores that sold greens didn’t sell many when people was eating Poke, THEY PUT THE ARTICLES in the paper to scare people into not eating Poke. It worked. There is nothing poison to people or livestock in Poke Greens.

  • Waymon Vest

    I just left a comment on Poke Greens, forgot to mention that I have never or have I ever saw my mother boil Poke Greens but ONCE, never twice or three times.

  • waymon vest

    Does anyone out there know how to make poke seeds germinate? I know that poke will come up from the roots of the previous year, but I have planted seeds and have never had a plant to come up. I was told that the seeds have to go through a bird before they will germinate. Not sure if they knew what they were talking about or not. Hope to hear from someone.

  • NMC

    Makes sense they would need to go through a bird– the berries would draw bird attention. Moonflowers are the same, although in a pod, not a berry. Those seeds supposedly must be abraded to produce the effect of going through a bird’s insides.

  • we have always eat or cook with other greens or scramble eggs. Good eating.

  • scott

    I’m from Ohio, but all my people came from Kentucky. My dad loves poke as did my Mamaw. No one in my family EVER boiled more than once and no one ever got sick. Nothing goes better with soup beans, mashed taters and a cake of corn bread than a mess of poke.

  • Waymon Vest

    I went back and read some early comments. 5-4-2011 Someone that wouldn’t give his name (i thought a name was required to post) said a Kinsman died from eating poke. IF someone did die, sounds like he died of rabies.
    On 4-9-2012 it is stated that the burden of proof lies with people that say it isn’t poison. Well these people are alive and kicking. What other proof can they give? 5-26-14 If Mike would boil the poke only once, he would see that he is loosing lots of flavor. (how does he know that he is not loosing flavor?)
    Seems to me that .over 100 years of a family and their friends, neighbors, and visitors eating poke (boiled one time) without ever getting sick is pretty good proof.
    My Dad was born in 1886. It wasn’t until the 1940′s maybe late 1930′s that he ever heard of poke being poison. It must have started earlier, but in the late 40′s or early 50′s I started seeing articles in the newspaper stating that poke was poison. NO ONE EVER CLAIMED THE ARTICLES. I will always believe that Grocery Stores put these articles in the paper to stop people from eating poke and buy their greens. IT WORKED!!!!
    I would like for the Alabama Extension Service, Food Scientist at Auburn, and the American Cancer Society to trot out their dead as proof. (I BELIEVE THEY ARE IN THE POCKET OF THE LARGE GROCERY CHAINS!!)
    All farm animals that eat grass, love poke greens. Poke comes up all over the pastures but if you have livestock in the pasture, you will never see any poke. Never heard of an animal getting sick from eating it.

  • Waymon Vest

    There is a link to American Cancer Society in a 5-12-14 comments. on NMC. I read it. They listed FAR more good points than bad about poke greens.
    They stated ” Eating raw or improperly prepared poke can cause (they named 15 different things) and death (don’t know what they meant by improperly prepared)
    They stated that research has shown that poke appears to enhance the immune & has anti-cancer effect in animals/
    It is sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S.
    Juice from the berries is used in food coloring.
    There is a lot more, but i figure that if someone is interested they can check out the link.
    It is a native to eastern North America and is cultivated through out the world.
    Read the comment on 5-27-2013. It don’t look like that i am the only one that thinks the Alabama Experts are in cahoots with the packing Co’s to keep people from eating free poke.

  • Victor

    How can u get poke salad can u order it because I heard it is a cure for other things to.I want to know how to cook it rite to allene montgomery

  • Waymon Vest

    VICTOR, Read Bob Hardison’s comments (older comments also) Don’t think he will steer (spelling) you wrong.

  • Dr. T

    I live in s.e. oklahoma and we grew up eating polk salad, be sure to boil for ten minutes and drain, once seems to be enough. No one in my Family has ever had cancer?? do not know if polk is the effect or just clean water and genetics. we never got sick form any polk salad. I am a veterinarian and I do have one case where an owner of a dog with severe demodectic mange seems to have cured the dog of mange by feeding her fried polk root which is an old Indian cure.

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