americana - Poke
(above photo of Pokeweed by Lauren Berg taken during the May 21st 2011 Slow Food walk.)
According to Tantaguidgeon:
The root of this plant is combined with the bark of Sarsaparilla and Mountain Grape to make a remedy for rheumatism. It acts as a stimulant and blood purifier. In preparing the medicine, the root of the poke is first thoroughly roasted and then crushed. To avoid nausea, a small dose is customary. A salve effective for chronic sores and glandular swellings is made from the roots of the poke (roasted), bittersweet, yellow parilla, and the bark of elder. These ingredients are placed in boiling tallow or lard, to which is added a medium-sized piece of beeswax. A more modern formula calls for the addition of one-forth ounce of carbolic acid and two ounces of menthol crystals.
Regarding the Mohegan experience, she writes:
Root was said to be poisonous if eaten, but the young shoots were cooked and served the same as spinach or asparagus. The berries were mashed to make a poultice for sore breasts.
I have come to appreciate the tincture of fresh root as a powerful and low-dose (1-5 drops) lymphatic. The greens cooked in a few changes of water are a favorite vegetable. It is clear to me that the potent qualities of this plant must be respected. Gladys’ account of roasting the root to render it usable is to me an example of a practice and an understanding that has largely been lost. I am very interested in learning how to roast poke and how to then use it, but I have little idea about where to turn to learn.
I consider the dried root to be weak to worthless. Perhaps, freshly dried would contain more potency, which would diminish with aging. I am not sure, but intend to experiment. This outlook makes me wonder about the process of roasting. The following extract is from Lighthall. He mentions that dried root loses its potency. He also discusses roasting the root for preparing a poultice. For internal use, however, he recommends tincture of fresh root.
Poke Root, like dandelion, will lose its virtue in drying. The dried root is inert and void of its original medicinal properties. Poke Root is a plant that grows in many parts of the United States. The young shoots in spring are used for greens, as kale or cabbage sprouts. The root should be dug in the months of July and August, and the tincture made from it while it is in its green state. The berries have also an important medical property.
Medical properties and uses. -- The tincture of Poke Root is one of our finest herbal alteratives, and has been regarded by eclectics as a reliable remedy for the treatment of scrofulous diseases. I have used it in sore throat or diphtheria with satisfactory results. It is certainly, or I regard it such in my own judgment, a specific for all glandular troubles, and has no equal in subduing swollen glands when their condition is of a sympathetic character.
It is almost certain to relieve mammary troubles. When the mammary glands are swollen and threatened with abscess, if the green root is roasted as you would a sweet potato, and mashed into a poultice and applied to the breast, and the tincture be given internally, an avoidance of the abscess and a cure is almost certain. I have used it in many cases of rheumatism, in combination with Rattle Root and Prickly Ash, with the best results. The berries possess, beyond question or doubt, marked alterative properties. I have known the tincture of the berries to cure the worst of cases of anthrodial or joint rheumatism when many other remedies have failed to produce any effect.
Mode of preparation. -- Dig the green root in July or August, wash clean, cut in fine pieces, and fill a pint or quart bottle one half full, add diluted or weakened alcohol, shake every day, and in fourteen days you have a pure tincture. Dose, from three to ten drops three or four times a day. Prepare the berries the same way, mashing the berries before adding the diluted alcohol. Dose, teaspoonful four times a day. Indicated in rheumatism, especially when the person is of a scrofulous nature.
Moerman mentions uses of poke by several Native American tribes. The Cherokee used the berries for arthritis and rheumatism, sometimes with roots; the greens for building the blood and loosening the bowels; externally for ulcers, swellings, and sores; infusion of root for eczema, and for fevers. The Lenape use reported by Moerman matches that recorded above from W-tapanoxwe. The Iroquois used poke for rheumatism and chest colds; and as a cathartic, emetic, and expectorant. Externally they used the root poultice for bruises; the berries for skin lumps; and the root decoction for sprains, bruises, and swollen joints. The Mahuna used the roots for neuralgic pains. The Micmac used the leaves for bleeding. The Rappahannock used the berries for dysentery. The Seminole used the berries as an analgesic.
The popular use of poke for chronic diseases, such as rheumatism and chronic swellings, brings us to the issue of safety. How safe is poke for long-term use? Was the use in such long-term diseases regular (as in daily), seasonal (when the leaves, root, or berries were at optimal harvesting stages), or occasional (according to specific symptoms)?
According to Holmes poke should only be used short-term, never for more than two weeks at a stretch. He also declares that it is forbidden during pregnancy due to possible teratogenic effects. He recommends a dose of 3-25 drops (0.1-1 ml), with the average being 9 drops (0.4 ml), of tincture of dried root. He considers the fresh root to be too toxic.
Turner and Szczawinski report that the whole plant, especially the roots and seeds, is highly toxic. They warn that although cooking in two waters eliminates most of the toxins, the cell-altering mitogens can be absorbed during harvesting. They advise avoiding pokeweed use altogether.
They describe the poisoning symptoms: (developing 1-2 hours after eating poke) abdominal cramps, persistent vomiting, diarrhea, perspiration, weakness and drowsiness, slowed pulse, difficulty breathing, and visual disturbances; and in severe cases, convulsions and death. It is believed that a mitogen in poke causes blood cell abnormalities. Treatment for poisoning is to induce vomiting or perform gastric lavage.
Elias and Dykeman warn that if the shoots show any purple color they should be avoided, as should the mature stems. They instruct to boil the shoots for ten minutes with one or two changes of water, strain, add fresh boiling water and simmer until tender.
The young shoots – up to 6 in. (15 cm) – or just the leafy tips, are excellent boiled for 20-30 min. (unil tender) in at least 2 changes of water. The peeled shoots can be boiled for 15 min. in several changes of water and pickled in hot vinegar. Warning: Root, seeds, and mature stems and leaves dangerously poisonous. Be very careful not to include part of the root when collecting the shoots, and peel or discard shoots tinged with red.
It is important to note that the presence of mitogens is a recent discovery, which helps to explain why modern authors (such as Holmes and Turner) tend to be cautious while earlier authors (such as Lighthall) praise the medicinal virtue of the fresh root. Moerman mentions that the Mahuna and Mohegan considered poke poisonous.
Poke is easy to learn to identify. From the dried wintered stalks to the purple berries, all stages of growth are relatively distinct. Even if you have not noticed the plant in the wild (if you look around much at all, chances are that you have), you have likely seen the purple pokeweed bird poop on your car windshield.
Another common name for poke is “ink berry”. This name is quite appropriate today as children often discover the inky quality of the berries (by squishing them all over their skin or working out methods of writing with poke ink, stick or feather pens, and leaf or rock “paper”). The berries, by the way, are a common source of poisoning in children who are attracted to the berries and sometimes find them tempting to eat- as I did as a child (with no obvious ill effects). This name also refers to the use of poke berries in making ink, as they once commonly were.
I highly recommend getting to know this herb.
 Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians by Gladys Tantaquidgeon informed by Wi-tapanoxwe of Oklahoma
 The Indian Household Medicine Guide by J. I. Lighthall
 Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman
 The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes
 Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America by Nancy J. Turner & Adam F. Szcawinski
 Edible Wild Plants - A North American Field Guide by Thomas S. Elias & Peter A. Dykeman
 A Field Guild to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America by Lee Allen Peterson