Introduction and description
The pokeweeds, also known as poke, pokebush, pokeberry, pokeroot, polk salad, polk salat, polk sallet, inkberry or ombú, comprise the genus Phytolacca, perennial plants native to North America, South America, East Asia and New Zealand.
Pokeweed contains phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, which are both toxins. The concentration of the toxins increases as the plant matures. There are also noncardioactive steroids and triterpenoid glycosides (saponins) in phytolacca but it is not known what effects these have. In general Saponins are irritants. Ribosomes are the components of cells that make proteins from all amino acids and Pokeweed contains ribosome inactivating proteins called ribotoxins. The ribotoxins have a mechanism of action similar to ricin, a protein extracted from the castor bean (Ricinus communis). which may cause allergic reactions and is toxic, though the severity depends on the route of exposure.
From this you should get the general idea that pokeweed is toxic.
The leaves of Phytolacca americana (pokeweed), when ingested, typically produce a self-limited but severe gastroenteritis characterized by intense vomiting and frothy diarrhea. Although cardiac effects have been reported in previous cases of pokeweed ingestion, no cardiac toxin has ever been identified in pokeweed. We report the case of a family who ingested raw and/or cooked pokeweed leaves, and 1 member who developed a Mobitz type I heart block associated with vomiting which resolved after i.v. promethazine. This suggests the possibility that some cardiac effects of pokeweed are secondary to the increased vagal tone seen with severe gastrointestinal colic. PMID: 7709598
Despite its toxicity Pokeweed has been used in very small doses by Native Americans. The powdered root was used as a slow emetic and purgative, however, Mrs Grieve said “the slowness of action and the narcotic effects that accompany it render its use as an emetic inadvisable”. External application has been used for skin diseases. But as Mrs Grieve says “overdoses may produce considerable vomiting and purging, prostration, convulsions and death”.
All parts of pokeweed are toxic including the raw above ground leaves sprouting in the early spring. The poisonous principles are found in highest concentrations in the rootstock, less in the mature leaves and stems, and least in the fruits. (Green fruits are slightly more toxic) . The berries are toxic when raw but “the cooked juice is edible”. The seeds remain toxic after cooking.
Young leaves, if collected before acquiring a red color, are theoretically edible if boiled for 5 minutes, rinsed, and reboiled. Even so there are cases of severe gastroenterisis developing from ‘improperly prepared’ pokeweed. Symptoms include a burning sensation in the gastrointestinal tract and severe hemorrhagic gastritis. However, it may be difficult to identify exactly when leaves have no red color whatsoever; an incorrect picking may result in a poisoning.
from Christian Rasch – Encyclopaedia of Psychedelic plants quoting Li 1979
There are two forms of this medicine [pokeroot], one red and one white. The white kind is used in the healing arts. The red kind can be used to conjure spirits; it is very toxic. Otherwise, it can be used only externally for inflammations. If eaten it is very terrible; it causes bloody stools. It can be lethal. It causes one to see spirits
Poke salit, or poke salad, is occasionally even available commercially. Many authorities have advised against eating pokeweed even after boiling several times, as traces of the toxin may still remain. For many decades, poke salad was a staple of southern U.S. cuisine, despite campaigns by doctors who believed pokeweed remained toxic even after being boiled. The lingering cultural significance of Poke salad can be found in the 1969 hit song "Polk Salad Annie," written and performed by Tony Joe White.
At certain doses symptoms are much the same as we have seen with many other of the toxins – lethargy, weakness, paresthesias [tingling, pricking, or numbness of a person's skin], blurred vision, vertigo, sweating, salivation, respiratory depression and convulsions. Hypotension and tachycardia commonly occur after pokeweed poisoning. And you can die.
Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) and the Cincinnati-based Drug and Poison Information Center (DPIC) were analyzed to determine the incidence and trends of human plant poisonings since the year 2000. Approximately 3.4% of the approximately 4.3 million annual calls to the AAPCC centers involved plants, with a higher fraction (4.5%) for pediatric exposures. Nearly 70% of plant exposures occurred in children under six. Only 8% of cases required treatment in a health-care facility, and only 0.1% (in 2008) were considered severe outcomes. The most prominent groups of plants involved in exposures are those containing oxalates, and the most common symptom is gastroenteritis. The top 12 identified plants (in descending order) nationally were Spathiphyllum species (peace lilly), Philodendron species (philodendron), Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinssettia), Ilex species (holly), Phytolacca americana (pokeweed), Toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy), Capsicum (pepper), Ficus (rubber tree, weeping fig), Crassula argentea (jade plant), Diffenbachia (dumb cane), Epipremnum areum (pothos) and Schlumbergera bridesii (Christmas cactus). PMID: 21034756
Animals can be poisoned by pokeweed too including pigs, horses, dogs and goats
A 5-y-old Boer goat buck was presented to a University veterinary hospital with a history of acute bloody diarrhea. Pokeweed toxicity was diagnosed from history of plant ingestion and by ruling out other possible diagnoses. The goat responded to supportive therapy and was discharged after 4 days PMID: 12458640
How it works
Basically you are giving yourself a near death experience or if you get it wrong an actual death experience.
It is worth mentionning that there are some truly dangerous preparations and pieces of advice given on this plant . And here is the quote that decided something needed to be said……….
“the species of phytolaca all contain phytolaccic acid, saponines and tannins as active constituents and have narcotic and purgative properties. Phytolacca acinosa is known as ‘shang-lu’ in China, where it is an important drug plant. It was once used by sorcerors for ‘seeing spirits’ “ [Steve Andrews]
Read that and you have no idea why you see spirits, there is the implication it is an hallucinogen. It is not, it is a toxin.
It will make you very very ill, or kill you
References and further reading
1. Meyler’s Side Effects of Drugs – Elsevier publishing
2. A Modern Herbal – Mrs M Grieve
3. Medical Toxicology of Natural Substances – Foods, Fungi, Medicinal Herbs, Plants and Venomous Animals pub. Wiley
There are a number of near death experiences which can be found on sites like PubMed.
I found a case history of a woman who had become seriously ill after the ingestion of a ‘folk remedy’ containing pokeweed. Another case history of a person who had ingested a brewed tea of pokeweed leaves and roots after being sold it as a herbal tea “pokeweed herbal tea poisoning” [Lewis and Smith JAMA 1979]
BUT, to provide a note of optimism, we have also included a number of observations from Dr Duke. This shows that medicinally this plant has potential, but you cannot obtain that medicinal potential by eating it.
Like all medicines, if the potential is to be realised, then processing is required to extract those parts that are potentially healing as opposed to toxic.
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticervicaldysplasic activity 018364
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticfs activity 018365
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticold activity 018430
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticrohn's activity 018435
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidote (Cadmium) Activity of high potency 018328
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antihemorrhagic activity 018446
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antikeratitic Activity 019936
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antilupus activity 018440
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with AntiLyme activity 018380
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antimeasles activity 019577
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiosteoarthritic activity 018447
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antipapillomic Activity of high potency 018898
- Dr Duke's list of the top 20 plants containing Vitamin C 017964