Poke, the plant in the ’60s song “Poke Salad Annie,” is one of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution. From its berries came the writing ink of the common colonist far from sources of rare and expensive writing supplies, much less paper. This curious and potentially toxic native perennial called Phytolacca americana grew all over the South and East. When men went to war, sending messages in the wilderness needed ink, and poke berries were among the most common source. Ink was made by fermenting berry juice to produce a fuchsia red ink while the iron-based inks of the Declaration of Independence turn brown.
In archives all over lie Civil War letters from the South written with wild turkey feather quills and poke berry ink. Experts know the magenta cast to ink is the clue to poke as the local source. Though proof is scarce, it’s said that the letters from the wounded written by Walt Whitman in field hospitals sometimes featured poke ink, the only stuff available during the war. Berry juice was discovered in early American paint to lend a pinkish cast, and later pioneer basket makers used it to dye their materials. Since poke is not colorfast, it was rarely used to dye cloth or yarn.
It is the purple-black berries of poke weed that led to its cultivation far beyond its American home range to naturalize in California. I discovered the first growing in a former wine-producing area in the foothills. It also found a home in Portugal, where port wines are very popular. Berry juice became a popular way to make poor red wine look better with added color. Once the ruse was discovered it was banned from the vineyard regions of the Old World to prevent this use. Likely it came to California for the same reason as early vintners were forced to contend with poor harvests and drought. It explains why this rare plant popped up in so many Victorian homes in northern California.
If it weren’t for “Poke Salad Annie,” the plant would have remained an obscure regional species of the South. The term sallet is Old English for “cooked greens,” and this indicated it was not to be used as a fresh green because it’s too poisonous. Nearly all parts of this perennial plant are dangerous to kids, pets and livestock. Be doubly aware when berries are present as children will be drawn to try them. Even though it was once used medicinally, it is no longer and should be omitted from family backyards.
Poke sallet is eaten only during a brief period in the spring. Only the new shoots, like asparagus, are cut at about a foot tall. They must be twice-boiled to become edible, then boiled a third time to cook. After the first boiling the water is discarded, then boiled again in fresh water and so on. This ensures that all three poisons in the plant, phytolaccatoxin, triterpene and saponins, are thoroughly leached away or inactivated.
Poke is a perennial that develops a large tap root over time with numerous crowns. From these come the news shoots each spring. It spreads by birds which love the berries making this a first class habitat plant. But beware that they will distribute the seed inside each berry onto sidewalks, decks, lawn furniture, cars and all your neighbor’s gardens.
Today poke ink is being rediscovered by artists, calligraphy folks and school children who are taught how this berry juice became the most widely used early American ink. How many old letters and documents were written with home made poke ink? Now crafters are making their own poke berry ink for tints and inks for beautiful calligraphy work. They return to the old ways of using this common wayside weed so tied to the individuals involved in our repeated struggles for freedom.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com
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