Pokeweed — The pokeweeds, also known as poke, pokebush, pokeberry, pokeroot, polk salad, polk sallet, inkberry or ombú, comprise the genus Phytolacca, perennial plants native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand. Pokeweed contains phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, which are poisonous to mammals. However, the berries are eaten by birds, which are not affected by the toxin because the small seeds with very hard outer shells remain intact in the digestive system and are eliminated whole.
Pokeweeds are herbs growing from 1 to 10 ft. tall. They have single alternate leaves, pointed at the end, with crinkled edges. The stems are often pink or red. The flowers are greenish-white, in long clusters at the ends of the stems. They develop into dark purple berries.
Phytolacca dioica, the ombú, grows as a tree on the pampas of South America and is one of the few providers of shade on the open grassland. It is a symbol of Argentina and gaucho culture.
Young pokeweed leaves can be boiled three times to reduce the toxin, discarding the water after each boiling. The result is known as poke salit, or poke salad, and is occasionally available commercially. Many authorities advise against eating pokeweed even after thrice boiling, as traces of the toxin may still remain. For many decades, poke salad has been a staple of southern U.S. cuisine, despite campaigns by doctors who believed pokeweed remained toxic even after being boiled. The lingering cultural significance of Poke salad can be found in the 1969 hit song “Polk Salad Annie,” written and performed by Tony Joe White, and famously covered by Elvis Presley and the El Orbits. Pokeberry juice is added to other juices for jelly by those who believe it can relieve the pain of arthritis.