Herb: Indian Poke

Latin name: Veratrum viride

Family: Melanthiaceae

Medicinal use of Indian Poke:

Indian poke is a highly toxic plant that was widely employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes who used it mainly externally in the treatment of wounds, pain etc. It is rarely used in modern herbalism, though it is of potential interest because it contains steroidal and other alkaloids and chelidonic acid. Some of these alkaloids lower blood pressure and dilate the peripheral vessels - they have, for example, been used in conventional medicine to treat high blood pressure and rapid heart beat. Any use of this plant should be carried out with great caution and preferably only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Even when applied externally to unbroken skin it has been known to cause side-effects. See also the notes above on toxicity The root is analgesic, diaphoretic, emetic. expectorant, febrifuge, narcotic and sedative. It has been used in the treatment of acute cases of pneumonia, peritonitis and threatened apoplexy. A decoction of the root has been used in the treatment of chronic coughs and constipation. A portion of the root has been chewed, or a decoction used, in the treatment of stomach pain. The roots are harvested in the autumn and can be dried for later use. The root has been used to make a skin wash and compresses for bruises, sprains and fractures. The powdered root has been applied as a healing agent to wounds and as a delousing agent. The stems have been scraped and the powder snuffed to induce sneezing. An infusion of the leaves has been used as a wash to treat aches and pains. The plant is used in homeopathic preparations to slow the heart rate.

Description of the plant:


2 m
(6 1/2 foot)

July to

Habitat of the herb:

Swamps, moist meadows and low ground.

Edible parts of Indian Poke:

One report says that the leaves have been used in soups. The plant is highly toxic, so this use is probably best avoided.

Other uses of the herb:

The dried and powdered root is used as an insecticide and a parasiticide. It is also effective against caterpillars and mammals so great caution is advised. The roots have been grated, then added to the laundry water and used to clean clothing. A fibre obtained from the stem is used for weaving wallets etc.

Propagation of Indian Poke:

Unless stored in damp sand at around 4C the seed has a short viability. Where possible it is best to sow the seed in a lightly shaded position in the greenhouse as soon as it is ripe. Stored seed needs to be stratified but can be very slow to germinate. Germination can be erratic even for seed sown when it was fresh, it usually takes place within 3 - 12 months at 15C but can be much longer. The plant produces just one seedleaf in its first year, this forms an over-wintering bulb. It takes up to 10 years for the plant to reach maturity. Sow the seed thinly so there is no need to thin or transplant them, and grow the seedlings on undisturbed in the pot for their first two years of growth. Apply a liquid feed at intervals through the growing season to ensure the plants do not become nutrient deficient. At the end of the second year plant out the dormant plants into individual pots and grow them on in light shade in the greenhouse for a further year or two before planting them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer. Division in March/April or in October. Establish the plants in pots in a shaded frame before planting them out. Division is best carried out in the autumn because the plants come into growth very early in the spring. Root cuttings, 6mm long with a bud, rooted in a sandy soil in a cold frame.

Cultivation of the herb:

Swamps, moist meadows and low ground.

Known hazards of Veratrum viride:

All parts of the plant are highly poisonous. After the plant dies down in the autumn and has been frosted, the toxins decrease and the plant becomes harmless to animals.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.