Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pokeweed behind bars

Does it belong there? And isn't it gorgeous? Just in terms of design, and colour?

The only reason I caught a glimpse of the elusive and stunningly beautiful, emerald-green and scarlet-winged Knysna loerie (now no longer a loerie, sadly, but a turaco), was because of this American weed. The gorgeous bird had been feasting on the invasive berries pathside, above the Storms River mouth on the south coast of South Africa. It flew off as we approached. I nearly peed in my pants. Vince was quite calm about it, kind of like when we saw a leopard panting in the shade within yards of our camp in the Kgalagadi, and he looked and said, Oh, cool.

Cool! Cool? This is not Disneyland, I squeaked, This is real! 

The loerie was real, too. I really can't call it a turaco. And that was before I knew that the berries on which it had been feeding belonged to pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, whose young green stems I have been eating for a couple of springs, now.

I am learning that there is a lot of myth and hearsay passed on as fact in 'serious' foraging literature. I have probably been guilty of quoting some of it myself. Time to go back and check. Like boiling milkweed so many times. Silly. I wish we could just get these things into a laboratory and have done with the tall stories.

Don't they look delicious? Hmmmm.

I have found recipes for pokeweed berry jelly, and pie. But no published forager seems to want to write about them. The berries are said to be poisonous, though far less so than the roots, and mature stems and mature leaves. Sam Thayer makes the most sense regarding the stem's edibility, writing that the size of the shoot is not the issue (thank you! ) but the nature of the shoot, in particular, "whether or not the shoot is still a vigorously growing meristem." Which explains why I pick and eat green pokeweed stems up to about 14", which are supple and sappy, and ignore a 7" stem growing nearby, which is rigid and red-stemmed and to be avoided. I saw the stems bundled for sale for the first time at the Union Square farmers market this year.

But the berries. Does anyone have stories about eating the berries - jelly, pie, juice? I'm not about to dive headfirst into them, don't worry, but I am very curious.

Fortunately, I am not a cat.

Update, 2016: I have eaten the ripe berries, subsequently, being careful not to ingest the seeds. The fruit tastes pretty awful, so I have no desire to make a practise of it.


  1. Thought of you this morning when i was yanking them from a similar fence. Never occurred to me to photograph them!

    If you can get a recipe for jam, i will make it. Even if it means letting them grow for a season in order to have enough berries.

  2. Yeah, the leopard was very cool. I reserve my out-of-this-world expletives for marine mammals, at close range, underwater. It sounds quite strange through a regulator... ;-)

  3. My sister and I made a marvelous purple juice of the berries (!?)...when we were kids. Poured it into a wine jug we found out back and capped it, saved for another day.

    The next day it was gone from its hiding place. I worried someone drank it for a good long time.

  4. I'm right there with you n the beauty of this plant. I even have a varieagted one named 'Silberstein' in my garden. Plant geekiness knows no bounds.

    Quick story about the fruit - though not specifically about eating it. I noticed the seed was available in the Jelitto catalogue (aka plant porn) so I asked them why. Mary said the berries are used by the Polish meat packing industry to stamp their product. I've always assumed it was the juice from the berries and I never followed up with her, but it was so oddly specific, I never forgot it.

  5. Any more offsite news on the berries being edible? We have these in our yard and I usually fight with them b/c they're so hard to weed, they don't let themselves be pulled from the ground so they just break off at the base like giant invasive yard splinters. But, if they're edible (!) I might change my tune...and tactic.

  6. They are edible if done right..... I Have a recipe to share.

    3 cups ripe poke berries
    3 cups water
    1 Tbsp gelatin
    1 cup sugar, or honey (if you use honey add at the end)

    Bring to boil and simmer 20 mins.Gently crush the berries in the pot with a potato masher.Strain the seeds out.Pour into jars.

  7. Dear kittenz96,

    What is the original source of this recipe? How do I contact them? Have you or anyone you know tried this recipe and actually eaten the jam? Please contact me about it.


    John Kallas, Ph.D., Director, Wild Food Adventures
    Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables
    4125 N Colonial Ave, Portland, OR 97217
    (503) 775-3828

    1. I have a huge pokeberry bush that I would love to use the berries off of. if you find out about this jam, please let me know

  8. the berries are edible but the seeds are poison, so, I would say don't crush the seeds, a potato masher would do the trick without opening the seeds.

  9. Hi folks, this year for the first time I'll be making (pokeberry jelly) from my back yard plants. I'll be playing around/experimenting with some exotic baking (spices) as well...such as, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamon, all spice, honey, mace, nutmeg, ginger, star anise, brown sugar, etc.! Maybe instead I'll just find some holiday spice cake flavoring and finish it off with a touch of dark Jamaican rum and call call it a Day...I'll keep you guys updated on the results...Good luck to everyone...Don


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