Poke sallet, Phytolacca Americana, a weed that is both feared and loved by many Southerners, was the first wild green I learned harvest. I had been hunting mushrooms for years, and had always wanted to forage for edible plants as well, but I was hesitant to learn without the help of an experienced picker. Well, In the south, if you are blessed with a Nanny or Grandmother in her 80’s, you probably have an experienced Poke picker to learn from. You just might hear her call it by a slightly different name: poke salad, polk weed, Virginia poke, or poke bush.
A couple of years ago a remodel forced us out of our home and had us living on the lake just a few minutes drive from my Nanny Wilma. It was a great fun time for my little tribe, filled with life lessons including fishing hook removal (from my flesh), gaspergou catching, and poke weed pickin’ ‘n’ fixin’.
One day I went over to visit with Nanny and found her trimming up a batch of poke. Like many southerners, she has cooked poke sallet with eggs every spring since she was a young lady. She doesn’t even have to go pick it these days, the bag she was cleaning that day had been freshly picked and delivered to her. I was thrilled to see what she was working on and I was eager to learn from her. She shared a few tips for finding and identifying poke sallet and told me that she would be happy to teach me how to prepare it if I went out and picked a batch. I hope to include all of her tips and instructions following this story.
When I left her house that day, I was checking every ditch, fence row, and field looking for those beautiful emerald-green lance-shaped leaves. The next day I stopped on the side of the road in 3 different places to fill my harvest basket with a small mess of greens. I was excited to get to Nanny’s house that evening to show them to her. My sweet Nanny was happy to see me and my basket full of greens……even though they were not poke sallet. She smiled and so sweetly said “Well, they look good enough to eat. But, I’m not sure what these are.” I recently learned that the basket of greens I took her was in fact a basket of edible yellow dock Rumex crispus. After a thorough inspection of my basket’s contents, she did find a few cuttings of actual poke sallet. We discussed the differences in the veining, texture and colors of the leaves. She explained that the poke plants had light rose-tinted young stems and that the leaves had smoother edges than the other greens in the basket. Once she explained the differences, the leaves of poke became perfectly recognizable to me. I don’t think I have walked past a Poke weed since then without recognizing it……and poke is everywhere around here!
I went out a few days later and picked an actual patch of poke weed growing near the Historic Shelby Iron Works. This time, I really knew what I was picking and I picked a ton of it. If I would have realized how time-consuming the preparation of poke is, I might have picked half as much.
Nanny shared the very basic but important steps for safely preparing my giant pile of Poke. I cut, deveined, boiled, strained, boiled, strained and eventually fried up that first huge batch of poke after about 3 hours of work in the kitchen. The result was love, love of a poisonous plant that can be turned into absolute deliciousness.
It’s really good that I loved it so much, because my first picking of poke sallet was enough to stock the freezer. I have stocked my freezer every spring since then. But these days I usually limit the size of my batches. I don’t have 3 hours to spend at one time processing poke weed. The greens that end up in the freezer have been cooked to the point they are safe to eat, and can be used in any way frozen spinach could. We do love traditional poke and eggs or poke fried in back-fat. But, I have learned that this versatile green ingredient can be used and appreciated in numerous non-traditional ways: poke and artichoke dip, poke and cream sauce over pasta, poke quiche, poke in smoked chicken chili and my new favorite, the most beautiful green pasta ever.
The pasta recipe will be my next post. It was incredible and I can’t wait to share it.
The culinary possibilities for this ingredient are endless. It is what I always wish cooked spinach could be; a perfect green without any stringy or grainy texture. It is a great way to add a bit of delicious green to many of our favorite foods. I love cooking with this weed.
So, why would a plant with such amazing culinary value not be adored by everyone? Simple, people are scared to death of the stuff. If you don’t follow the rules for cooking it, poke could kill you or make you so sick you would wish you were dead. Every country kid in the south knows that the dark purple berries growing on the tall tall stinky weeds with red stems will kill you! The entire plant is actually highly toxic and filled with several different active compounds. Poisons…or possibly medicines, I guess that depends on who you ask.
Many people including myself believe that poke sallet when properly prepared is actually good for your health. My Nanny who is in her late 80s is still going for daily walks, babysitting great-grands and looking stunningly beautiful. Maybe she just has great genetics. But, just in case the poke sallet has something to do with her longevity, I will be sure to eat as much of it as possible. The compounds found in Poke are powerful and the plant does deserve respect for many reasons. It has been used medicinaly for centuries and there are several biomedical-research groups looking at poke sallet as a possible treatment for diseases including HIV and cancer.
Poke sallet can be delicious and nutritious or poisonous and deadly, depending on how you eat it. The USDA actually has Poke Sallet listed in it’s Food Composition Database. I guess that means they accept it as an edible plant, so maybe everyone should get past their fears and learn to properly prepare this delicious food.
This plant has been beneficial to generations of Americans in many ways. The history, cultural significance and many uses of this plant are truly fascinating. If you know an older person that eats poke weed, listen to their stories and let them teach you about it. There are plenty of people like my Nanny that have survived eating poke sallet for decades, their knowledge is greater than any poke foraging lessons in a book or on a blog. I am grateful for my Poke weed lessons from Nanny and I hope to be teaching youngins about it when I am her age.
I am not an expert botanist. Please do your own research and know how to properly identify and cook any wild foods. Handling poke can be dangerous and gloves should be worn when picking or handling (if you are concerned or have sensitive skin). If you are pregnant do not handle or consume poke sallet. Keep children and pets away from any parts of raw poke weed.
Here are a few links that might help you learn more about Poke identification.
Before scrolling down to the “picking” and “preparing” sections of this post, take a moment to appreciate a little Poke culture.
Picking Poke Sallet
- Poke sallet is easily recognizable when it is fully mature; dark purple berries, red stems and veins, huge plants (sometimes 6 feet tall), with lance shaped leaves. If you are looking at a fully mature poke weed that meets this description, it is completely poisonous and can not be consumed in any way. You are too late to for this year, remember the location and go back to pick it next Spring.
- Only young poke can be safely cooked and consumed. Pick in March, April or May depending on your location. Young plants should not have red veins or stems. The stems and veins get darker as the plant matures. Avoid any poke sallet with dark pink or red stems.
- Poke grows in disturbed soils, clear-cuts, fence rows and roadside ditches. But, the most delicious poke I have eaten was picked from partially shaded areas in the edge of forests.
- Sometimes the dried stalks from the previous years growth can help with locating fresh young growth. The old stalks look like woody tubes poking out of the ground.
- I prefer to harvest only the tops of poke plants. This reduces the amount of work when trimming and is a way to avoid larger less appetizing leaves. Some people just harvest by cutting the leaves they want. Clipping the tops is faster so you are less likely to collect ticks.
Preparing Poke Sallet
- Don’t prepare poke sallet near young children, pets or anyone else that may eat raw greens off of your kitchen floor.
- Remove the thickest part of the center vein from each leaf. Nanny cuts down each side completely removing the center, splitting the leaf In half. This image shows how I handle the task. Some people skip this step and cook the thick veins and stems.. They say the smaller stems are like asparagus. I’ll stick with just eating the leaves because it is how I was taught and what I know to be safe.
- Coarsely chop the trimmed poke leaves.
- Drop the chopped leaves in a large boiling pot of water and boil for 10 minutes. The leaves will release water soluble toxins during the boiling process and will have a strong smell.
- While the leaves are boiling for the first time, thoroughly clean the area where you were chopping and removing stems from the poke weed. Sweep the floors and clean any surface that the raw poke weed touched. This step is very important if you have children or pets.
- After the floors are cleaned and the poke has boiled for 10 minutes, pour the greens in a colander and lightly press with a wooden spoon to remove as much water as possible. The water from the first boiling is bright green and full of very strong compounds.
- Drop the drained greens in a second large pot of salted boiling water and boil again for 10 minutes.
- Drain in a colander again. Some people boil poke a 3rd time, I do not.
- After the poke is boiled twice and the liquid has been pressed out of it, it is ready to be used however you wish or stored in the freezer. Poke Sallet can also be canned. But, I don’t imagine the results would be as great as freezing,
- To prepare poke in the traditional southern way: Fry the twice-boiled drained greens in a hot pan of olive oil…..and by olive oil I mean bacon grease. Then pour beaten eggs over them and scramble. If you are feeling Suessical, Serve with ham and enjoy Green Eggs and Ham.