Pokeweed is most well known as an enormous, toxic, perennial weed characterized by its thick hollow purple stem, deep purple berries (which yield one of its other common names, "inkberry"), and capacity to quickly grow up to ten feet high in a single season before dying back to the ground. Homeowners who have a pernicious patch of poke probably cannot imagine anyone voluntarily growing this plant, but for those who crave the delicious flavor of its shoots every spring and have no ready supply, we are here to help.
Pokeweed is a native plant, found across eastern North America and the west coast, with scattered populations across the southwest. Though the entire plant is toxic, there is a long tradition in the southeast of eating the shoots and young leaves when the plant is only about 8" tall or less in the spring (some people eat the leaves much later, but we never have). These shoots require special preparation, namely boiling in multiple changes of water, before consumption is advisable. Even then, some toxins are still ingested. It can leave a tingly sensation in the mouth and if not boiled enough can cause digestive upset or worse. Yet there is nothing like "poke sallet" (as it is known), tender thrice-boiled shoots swimming in butter and salt. The closest analogue is probably asparagus, but the flavor is quite different. As a perennial vegetable, it has a role to play in reducing our dependency on carbon-releasing annual agriculture.
Poke is also used to produce a natural dye, and many people swear by it as a natural medicine as well. There are some indications that it may prove an important anti-AIDS and anti-cancer medicine, and further studies are under way. It can apparently help expel worms and treat rheumatism as well. The root contains the most potency and is also the most toxic (indeed, be certain to cut the shoots well above the root so as to avoid any chance of consuming the root, from which the toxins cannot be removed by boiling). We recommend doing lots of research and speaking with expert practitioners before attempting to use pokeweed as a medicine, but we enjoy it as a food and even as a perennial part of the landscape. The poisonous berries are non-toxic for birds, and many species (like cardinals) seem to particularly enjoy eating them, especially ones that have dried up and persist on the plant husks through winter. Some people say the berries can be made edible by cooking, or that immunity to the toxin can be built up by eating one a day, but we do not recommend this.
Our seed comes from Aaron Parker at Edgewood Nursery in Maine.
GROWING TIPS: Scarify the seed with sandpaper or by poking with a pin, soak seeds in room temperature water for 24 hrs before sowing in spring. Starting in containers or direct sowing are both options.
Pokeweed is a extremely aggressive and dispersive, so consider carefully before planting, especially in areas out of ther native range. Will grow in most conditions. Weediness can be controlled by deadheading flowers before fruit set. Not recommended outside of native range (http://bonap.net/MapGallery/State/Phytolacca%20americana.png).