WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
As summer heat begins to fade, Pokeweed, a native shrub-like plant, accelerates its growth and draws attention to the edge zones of many of our most popular trails and woodlands of the Oakland County landscape. It often appears under power lines and is rather common in sections of our larger parks and State Recreation Areas. Sometimes, it thrives within front and back yards of homes and near areas of new construction. At night, its ripening fruits take on a special eye-catching beauty when captured by a camera’s lens. However, by the time pumpkins are coated with frost, pokeweed mysteriously vanishes.
Mid to late September never fails to bring questions and photos my way requesting help in identifying a “strange” plant that is usually described to me by trail users and homeowners something like this: “We saw a really huge weedy plant with purple stems and green and black berries.” I cringe when that identification question is followed by, “Can we eat the berries?” That all too common question on edibility brings my resounding response of, “No, absolutely not.” From there, the conversation gets livelier when I am sometimes told the berries, “look really juicy and edible,” and “I read somewhere you can make salad from pokeweed, there’s even a song about it.”
That comment refers to the misunderstood 1968 song, Polk Salad Annie recorded by Tony Joe White and popularized in the 1970’s by Elvis Presley. Listen here for the lively and rather strange tale of “poke salad,” the alligator that ate Annie’s granny, and the chain gang. Before you read further for the rest of the story on the facts and legends of this impressive “weed,” let me make one point clear: Do not eat any part of pokeweed, even if imaginary Annie and her granny made a salad from it.
An item of interest — and this is where folklore duels with modern research and mistakes can lead to serious illness or even in rare cases, death — is that pokeweed is identified in some scholarly research as a lethal poison, especially if the roots are consumed. Other reputable sources document a long history of pokeweed being a powerhouse plant if a complicated process of preparing the immature pokeweed shoots are properly followed. One fact is without dispute: In the American south, some still follow that preparation procedure and create “Poke Sallet.” During the depression era, it could even be found as a canned vegetable.
Identification of pokeweed in these closing weeks of summer is actually very easy, yet some confuse pokeweed with elderberry, autumn olives, or even grapes: three common plants with edible fruits that bear those fruits at the same time as pokeweed. Although pokeweed fruits are consumed by a variety of birds, including cedar waxwings and robins, they are not edible for humans and the entire plant is classified as poisonous (to eat) with the roots being the most dangerous. I see little resemblance of pokeweed to any of those alleged lookalikes, although two of the three berries, elderberry and grapes, do have berries that are similar in color. Elderberry berries are tiny and dangle downwards from an umbrella-shaped cluster, are not firmly attached to a “spike” like pokeweed berries are, and are nowhere as large as the fruit of a pokeweed. As for grapes, I see no similarity, especially since grapes are attached to vines. The berries of autumn olive, a very common and highly invasive plant of our county, are the wrong color and shape, but sometimes appear near pokeweed plants. In addition, the leaves of all four plants are very different.
Just last weekend I was wandering about the trail system of Orion Oaks County Park and stopped to photograph an impressive, large, and very colorful patch of pokeweed at the edge of a trail. Some of the dark, purplish-black berries towered over my head and as I moved about the patch, two trail goers stopped to talk. They had noted the plants in the past and were curious about my photography efforts. We chatted about the plant’s history in folklore and they moved into the patch to help me show its size.
The dark red stalks of the mature plant, a good identification characteristic, were unmistakable and made a dramatic contrast to the green foliage and large purplish-red berries that clung to spikes that were about four to eight inches long. Much to our surprise, tiny white flowers remained on some younger pokeweed plants that had yet to develop any fruits.
A homeowner living near Highland Recreation Area sent me a photo of pokeweed towering over her grandson, another vivid reminder as to the height of the plant and to be careful of random berry picking as pokeberries can look like grapes that hang down at a child’s level. The curious boy was reminded not to eat any berries he found. Additionally, the Poison Control Center warns that: “(they get) a lot of calls about children who ate purple berries. Usually, they picked pokeberries growing in their yards. The tell-tale clue is purple stains in and around mouths, on their hands, and on their clothing.” If a child (or anyone) eats pokeberries, call the Poison Control 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222 for guidance.
Pokeweed will continue to thrive and grow taller for a few more weeks. It will also increase in trailside visibility until about the first week of October, or the first heavy frost. Heavy frost will send pokeweed tumbling to the ground almost overnight, but the roots will send up new sprouts in spring.
These things are certain. American Pokeweed is native to the eastern United States, does extremely well in Oakland County, and has a long history of use as a food source in the American south, which raises the question of the plant being palatable or poisonous. The answer is both. However, pokeweed should not be on your menu. I repeat: pokeweed should not be on your menu. In addition to the likely chances of nausea, cramping, stomach pains, vomiting, incontinence, and occasional serious reactions with prescription medications, some people have died from its consumption. In some ways, it remains the Jekyll and Hyde of plants as researchers explore possible anti-cancer properties and some wild food fans in the south look for the young shoots as a spring treat. However, those who do consume it follow a detailed procedure of multiple boiling and water changes before eating the young shoots as a cooked vegetable in a dish known as, “Poke sallet.”
Late September and early October are wonderful times to hike our trails as the color change of maples and sassafras accelerates, and is also the time Pokeweed peeks, increasing your chance of an encounter. Pokeweed is a stunning plant and is without a doubt, rich in myth, legend, science-fact, and wishful fantasy. My suggestion to you is to practice health preserving situational awareness, take only photo(s), and hike on. Leave the berries to the birds, for that is the sensible and safe thing to do on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.