American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a large semi-succulent herbaceous perennial plant growing up to 10 feet (3 meters) in height. It is native to eastern North America, the Midwest, and the Gulf Coast, with more scattered populations in the far West. It is also known as American nightshade, cancer jalap, coakum, garget, inkberry, pigeon berry, pocan bush, poke root,pokeweed, redweed, scoke, red ink plant and chui xu shang lu (in Chinese medicine). Parts of this plant are highly toxic to livestock and humans, and it is considered a major pest by farmers. Nonetheless, some parts can be used as food, medicine or poison.
The plant has a large white taproot, green or red stems, and large, simple leaves. White flowers are followed by purple to almost black berries, which are a good food source for songbirds such as Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird.
Plant Type: Perennial herbaceous plant which can reach a height of 10 feet, but is usually four to six feet. The stem is often red as the plant matures. Upright, erect central stem early in the season. Changes to a spreading, horizontal form later in the season with the weight of the berries. Plant dies back to roots each winter. Stem has chambered pith.
Leaves: The leaves are alternate with coarse texture with moderate porosity. Leaves can reach nine inches in length. Each leaf is entire. Leaves are medium green and smooth with what some characterize as an unpleasant odor.
Flowers: The flowers have 5 regular parts with upright stamens and are up to 0.2 inches wide. They have white petal-like sepals without true petals, on white pedicles and peduncles in an upright or drooping raceme, which darken as the plant fruits. Blooms first appear in early summer and continue into early fall.
Fruit: A shiny dark purple berry held in racemous clusters on pink pedicels with a pink peduncle. Pedicles without berries have a distinctive rounded five part calyx. Berries are pomes, round with a flat indented top and bottom. Immature berries are green, turning white and then blackish purple.
Root: Thick central taproot which grows deep and spreads horizontally. Rapid growth. Tan cortex, white pulp, moderate number of rootlets. Transversely cut root slices show concentric rings. No nitrogen fixation ability.
Although the seeds are highly toxic, the berries are often cooked into a jelly or pie, and seeds are strained out or pass through unless bitten. Cooking is believed to inactivate toxins in the berries by some and others attribute toxicity to the seeds within the berries. The leaves of young plants are sometimes collected as a spring green potherb and eaten after repeated blanchings. Shoots are also blanched with several changes of water and eaten as a substitute for asparagus. They become cathartic as they advance to maturity. The cooked greens are sold commercially in the South, but any food use of the plant is controversial because of toxins in the plant.
Historically used for syphilis, diphtheria, conjunctivitis, cancer, adenitis and emesis or as a purgative.Used topically for scabies. Heroic and toxic class herb which requires professional training.
Physiologically, phytolacca acts upon the skin, the glandular structures, especially those of the buccal cavity, throat, sexual system, and very markedly upon the mammary glands. It further acts upon the fibrous and serous tissues, and mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tracts. Phytolacca is alterative, anodyne, anti-inflammatory,antiviral, anti-cancer, expectorant, emetic, cathartic, narcotic, hypnotic,insecticide and purgative.
Tincture of the Root: Alterative, for lymphatic disorders including breast lumps and skin conditions (especially when accompanied by a poultice on the lesions.) Also for arthritis, rheumatism, conjunctivitis, tonsillitis, infectious disease, edema, and cancer.
Root poultice: the root roasted in ashes and mashed is used as a poultice for breast abscesses. Also used for rheumatic pains, and swellings.
Root wash: used for sprains or swellings.
Root infused oil: The freshly dried root can be steeped in oil for breast abscesses and is often used in cancer protocols.
Berries: eaten without biting into the toxic seeds for arthritis. One is taken the first day, two the second, up to 7 and back down to one. The berries can also be soaked in water and the water drunk for rheumatism and arthritis. Juice has been topically applied for cancer, hemorrhoids and tremors.
Leaves: Cathartic and purgative.
Ash from plant: Potassium rich, used in cancer salves.
Anti-inflammatory constituents include saponins in poke root and triterpenes in the berries: alpha spinasterol, ascorbic acid, calcium oxalate, caryophylline, isoquercitin, jialigonic acid, and oleanolic acid.
Immune stimulant constituents include astragalin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, phosphorus and oleanolic acid.
Antiviral: PAP, oleanolic acid, ascorbic acid, tannin, mitogen.
In addition: Betanin and oleanolic acid are antiperoxidative and the vitamins plus caryophylline and oleanolic acid are antioxidant. Astragalin, isoquercitin and caryophylline are aldose-reductase-inhibitors.