Herb: Pokeweed


Latin name: Phytolacca americana


Synonyms: Phytolacca decandra


Family: Phytolaccaceae (Pokeweed Family)



Medicinal use of Pokeweed:

Pokeweed has a long history of medicinal use, being employed traditionally in the treatment of diseases related to a compromised immune system. The plant has an interesting chemistry and it is currently (1995) being investigated as a potential anti-AIDS drug. It contains potent anti-inflammatory agents, antiviral proteins and substances that affect cell division. These compounds are toxic to many disease-causing organisms, including the water snails that cause schistosomiasis. All parts of the plant are toxic, an excess causing diarrhoea and vomiting. This remedy should be used with caution and preferably under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. It should not be prescribed for pregnant women. The root is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory, cathartic, expectorant, hypnotic, narcotic and purgative. The dried root is used as an anodyne and anti-inflammatory. The root is taken internally in the treatment of auto-immune diseases (especially rheumatoid arthritis), tonsillitis, mumps, glandular fever and other complaints involving swollen glands, chronic catarrh, bronchitis etc. The fresh root is used as a poultice on bruises, rheumatic pains etc, whilst a wash made from the roots is applied to swellings and sprains. The root is best harvested in the autumn and can be dried for later use. The fruit has a similar but milder action to the roots.The juice is used in the treatment of cancer, haemorrhoids and tremors. A poultice made from the fruit is applied to sore breasts. A tea made from the fruit is used in the treatment of rheumatism, dysentery etc. The plant has an unusually high potassium content and the ashes, which contain over 45% caustic potash, have been used as a salve for ulcers and cancerous growths. The leaves are cathartic, emetic and expectorant. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh root. Its main action is on the throat, breast, muscular tissues and the joints.

Description of the plant:



Plant:
Perennial


Height:
2 m
(6 1/2 foot)

Flovering:
August to
September

Habitat of the herb:

Damp rich soils in clearings, woodland margins and roadsides.

Edible parts of Pokeweed:

Leaves - they must be cooked and even then it is best to change the water once. They are used like spinach. Only the young leaves should be used since they become toxic with age. Caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Young shoots - cooked. An asparagus substitute, they are delicious. The shoots are sometimes blanched before using, or forced in cellars to provide an early crop. The tender clear inner portion of the stem can be rolled in cornmeal and fried. Although cultivated on a small scale in N. America for its shoots, caution is advised, see notes above. A nutritional analysis is available. Fruit - cooked and used in pies. Poisonous raw, causing vomiting and diarrhoea. Even the cooked fruits should be viewed with caution. The fruit is a berry about 12mm in diameter. A red dye is obtained from the fruit and used as a food colouring.

Other uses of the herb:

A red ink and a dye are obtained from the fruit. A beautiful colour, though it is not very permanent. It makes a good body paint, washing off easily when no longer required, though the slightly toxic nature of the berries should be remembered. The rootstock is rich in saponins and can be used as a soap substitute. Cut the root into small pieces and simmer it in boiling water to obtain the soap. The plant is currently (1980) being evaluated for its snail-killing properties.

Propagation of Pokeweed:

Seed - sow autumn or spring in a cold frame. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. If you have sufficient seed, it might be worthwhile trying an outdoor sowing in a seed bed in early spring. Grow the plants on in the seedbed for their first year and plant them out the following spring. Division in March or October. Use a sharp spade or knife to divide the rootstock, making sure that each section has at least one growth bud. Very easy, larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions. We have found that it is better to pot up the smaller divisions and grow them on in light shade in a cold frame until they are well established before planting them out in late spring or early summer.

Cultivation of the herb:

Damp rich soils in clearings, woodland margins and roadsides.

Known hazards of Phytolacca americana:

The leaves are poisonous. They are said to be safe to eat when young, the toxins developing as the plants grow older. Another report says that the seeds and root are poisonous. The plant sap can cause dermatitis in sensitive people. The plant contains substances that cause cell division and can damage chromosomes. These substances can be absorbed through any abrasions in the skin, potentially causing serious blood aberratins, and so it is strongly recommended that the people wear gloves when handling the plant.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.