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How to Identify, Harvest, and Prepare Pokeweed and Poke Sallet

Larry Rankin is a product of rural America who takes an interest in sharing some little known traditions associated with country living.

Young pokeweed suitable for harvesting

Young pokeweed suitable for harvesting

Pokeweed: A Southern Delicacy

Pokeweed can be found throughout the majority of the continental United States but is far more prevalent in the central and eastern states of the South. It is a poisonous weed, related to nightshade—but if it is prepared for consumption correctly it is actually considered a delicacy by many denizens of the rural U.S. In fact, in its cooked form, pokeweed is so popular that many states, especially those in the South, hold yearly festivals in the early spring to commemorate it.

The cooked version of this weed is properly referred to as "poke sallet," but like with so many traditions that have survived via word of mouth, the pronunciation can often be found altered, most commonly to "poke salad." You might also see it spelled "polk salad" or "polk sallet." The "polk" spelling was popularized by a 1968 country/pop song by Tony Joe White called "Polk Salad Annie."

The term "sallet" is of French origin and refers to a mess of greens cooked until tender. For example, cooked spinach could be referred to as a sallet, but raw spinach would be called a salad. This distinction is important for reasons that will be elaborated upon later. Pokeweed should never be eaten raw.

In this article, I will give you an overview of the potential dangers of this weed, how and when one might harvest it in relative safety, and then detail a popular way to prepare this dish.

Caution

Raw pokeweed is poisonous. It must be cooked to be consumed safely.

Is Pokeweed Poisonous?

Let's start by discussing all the ways that pokeweed can harm and/or kill you. It is worthy of note that no U.S. food organization endorses the consumption of pokeweed regardless of how it is prepared.

That being said, I would like to add that this dish has never harmed anyone I know that was aware of how to properly prepare it, and even the stories I’ve heard of an unwitting guest or relative finding a bowl of the uncooked leaves in a kitchen and mistaking them for spinach or some other edible, raw, green leafy, only ended with a day’s bout of diarrhea.

In addition, if, for example, pork is improperly prepared, it too can harm and/or kill a person. The FDA and the like are fine with giving pork the green light. My point is that foraging is becoming increasingly popular these days, and whether or not you choose to prepare and eat this salad is entirely up to you. It isn’t illegal, and if you are the sort of person who can follow directions and knows how to avoid cross-contamination, this recipe might be for you.

Photo Guide: Using the Berries to Tell If Pokeweed Is Harvestable

The berries are your indicator of whether or not the plant is harvestable. (Never consume the berries, though.)

The berries are your indicator of whether or not the plant is harvestable. (Never consume the berries, though.)

Small white berries: plant is harvestable.

Small white berries: plant is harvestable.

Green berries: harvesting the plant is questionable.

Green berries: harvesting the plant is questionable.

Mix of green and fully ripe purple berries: do not harvest.

Mix of green and fully ripe purple berries: do not harvest.

Fully ripe berries: do not harvest.

Fully ripe berries: do not harvest.

Which Part Is Poisonous?

Poison can be found throughout this raw plant, and while birds and many insects are immune to these toxins, humans are not. The level of this toxicity is strongly related to the part of the plant being handled and the plant's life-stages.

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The Life Stages

  • Young plant: When this plant first sprouts in the early spring, the leaves are at their least poisonous. Throughout the maturation of the pokeweed, the plant's toxicity increases.
  • Fruiting plant: At some point, the weed will fruit. The fruit, especially fully ripened, are considered by many to be quite toxic.
  • Mature plant: When it reaches maturity, pokeweed can grow to over ten feet in height. It goes from a green to a beautiful purple color. Attracted by their beauty, many a child has become ill and it has even been suggested that some youths and adults with immunosuppression or lowered organ function have died from ingesting these berries. Because they are viewed as such a potential threat, some have suggested trying to eliminate pokeweed altogether.

Plant Parts

  • Roots: Throughout the maturation process the most toxic part of the pokeweed is the root system. You should avoid touching the roots altogether.
  • Leaves and stems: The leaves are the least toxic part of the plant, followed by the stems.
  • Fruit: As alluded to earlier, you definitely don't want to eat the fruit, as it too is toxic, though researchers vary in their opinion of its lethality. These ripened berries begin life tiny and white, then grow to their full size and turn green, and eventually end life as an eye-catching black or purple.

Despite all the negative press, the mature pokeweed is still employed by some in plant arrangements because of its beauty, and the plant is also sometimes rendered down to produce ink.

Possible Effects of Pokeweed Poisoning

What factors affect poisoning?

The consequences of pokeweed poisoning vary depending on

  • the part of the plant ingested,
  • the maturation of the plant,
  • the amount of the plant ingested,
  • and the physical condition and age of the individual affected.

Are certain groups more at risk?

As with most anything that is potentially harmful, the extremely young and old, as well as those with a compromised immune system and/or organ problems, are more likely to have the most pronounced ill effects from exposure to the pokeweed. This is also true of many other foods, like sushi, for example.

If you are pregnant, this plant should definitely be added to the long list of things you simply don’t handle or consume in any way, shape, or form. It is believed the pokeweed’s toxins can penetrate the womb and cause a number of problems, including birth defects. The same can be said for pregnant women eating or handling many raw foods.

What does pokeweed poisoning look like?

Recovery from light poisoning can be expected within one to two days, and symptoms can be as mild as a touch of stomach cramping and diarrhea. That being said, as with any poisoning, medical assistance should be sought regardless of the perceived severity of the symptoms.

More severe cases of pokeweed poisoning will manifest themselves with an emetic (vomiting) response in as little as two hours after ingestion. Other signs of poisoning include a burning sensation in the mouth and blood in vomit and diarrhea of the affected.

In cases of pokeweed-related death, the respiratory system and organs simply become paralyzed and cease to function.

Can you get pokeweed poisoning by touching it?

Whether weeding or harvesting, it is also of note that a pokeweed, especially a mature one, can penetrate skin with contact. In addition, there is some evidence that contact with the weed can be carcinogenic. Because of this, one should always use gloves when handling pokeweed.

Are the toxins completely gone after you cook it?

Like with alcohol or sushi or beef that is not well done, regardless of how it is handled or prepared, trace amounts of toxins will likely be present, but healthy bodies should be able to handle them with ease.

Are you properly terrified yet?

As bad as these possible side effects can sound, please keep in mind that none of these threats are uncommon in a number of things that most of us routinely prepare and consume.

With proper precaution, sickness due to pokeweed is unlikely. In comparison, handling a piece of pork that happens to contain a particularly bad strain of trichinosis is arguably more dangerous.

Photo Guide: Using the Stalks to Tell If Pokeweed Is Harvestable

Stalk is completely green. Plant is harvestable.

Stalk is completely green. Plant is harvestable.

Stem starting to become harder and take on purplish hue.  Harvesting plant is questionable.

Stem starting to become harder and take on purplish hue. Harvesting plant is questionable.

Large plant with hard deep purple or wood color stem. Do not harvest.

Large plant with hard deep purple or wood color stem. Do not harvest.

Insects and birds beat you to it!  Leaves will actually grow back, but plant will likely be over developed before you can harvest again.

Insects and birds beat you to it! Leaves will actually grow back, but plant will likely be over developed before you can harvest again.

How to Harvest and Prepare Pokeweed

Proper pokeweed harvesting is as important as any other step in successfully and safely preparing poke sallet.

Step 1: Find the Plant

Know Where to Look

The first step in harvesting poke is finding the stuff, and though it grows in all manner of places, this can be quite a hurdle for the newly initiated. Despite the fact that pokeweed has a very distinctive look when mature (to a point that it is quite difficult to mistake it for any other plant), you want to harvest this weed in early spring during its youth when it is between about one to two feet tall, because this is when toxicity levels in the plant are at their lowest. Remember to wear gloves! At this point in the plant's development, it is completely green and looks like many other large-leafed green plants.

There are a few tricks, however, in finding optimal spots for growth. As I mentioned earlier, pokeweed can be found in most of the continental U.S. but is more prevalent in the central to eastern states of the South. The following three spots are good places to start.

  • Recently disturbed spots: It likes to grow in any spot that has been disturbed, either naturally or otherwise. For example, you can expect the weed to pop up anywhere along fence lines in the spring, especially if the fence line is well-kempt. Cleared forest areas, either through natural or unnatural means, are another piece of prime real estate for this plant.
  • Places with lots of cattle: My personal favorite place to look for pokeweed is any spot where cattle are kept in close proximity for a period of time each year, such as a small pasture where calves are weaned. In places like these, the plant grows in abundance.
  • Wherever weeds grow: Basically any waste place where weeds grow is a good place to look for it, which brings us back to our initial problem: lots of weeds grow in these types of places, and lots of them look like a young pokeweed.

Use Your Sniffer

Another good way to identify pokeweed is by smell. The smell of this plant growing in large amounts is distinctive, and I know it by heart. The problem is that I don’t know how to describe this smell to you. It’s like when you look for wild onions; you tell everyone to smell for onions, and everyone knows what onions smell like.

Well, pokeweed smells like pokeweed. But until you have an experiential reference, you’re out of luck.

Enlist Help or Keep Track of Where Mature Pokeweed Lives

The fact of the matter is that unless you are a trained botanist, finding a young pokeweed appropriate for eating is difficult to do alone for the first time. Enlist an experienced pokeweed hunter to help you out, if you can. If not, you might try this: take note of where mature pokeweeds grow and come back the next spring. More likely than not, the green leafy plants you will see growing in these spots are young versions.

Again, spotting the highly poisonous, mature version of the plant is easy. They are four to 12 feet tall, purple, and have black, shiny berries. Again, you would never eat the plant in this form. You are only using this as a frame of reference to find the pokeweed when it is completely green next spring. Eating a pokeweed plant with any coloring that is not green is a huge no-no, even if the leaves are still green. The toxicity levels by this point are simply too high.

If you don’t want to wait a whole year to eat poke sallet, just ask somebody that knows how to find it. Most poke-sallet eaters will be more than helpful, if for no other reason than that the plant is so darn prevalent. It is no order of national security to poke-sallet eaters that they keep the pokeweed’s growth places a secret.

And if you can just have someone help you find plants appropriate for harvest once, you will likely never need help again. Finding pokeweed for the first time is probably the hardest step of the whole process of this recipe, but if you have a little help, it really isn’t that difficult.

Watch a Documentary

Below, you'll find a five-minute documentary about pokeweed. Joe York of the Southern Foodways Alliance interviewed two people, a woman who loves to cook this weed and an ethnobotanist, to make the helpful video you find here. This video has some great images of the young plant and might help you know a little bit more about what you should look for.

Wear gloves when picking pokeweed in order to avoid contact with the highly toxic roots.

Wear gloves when picking pokeweed in order to avoid contact with the highly toxic roots.

Step 2: Safely Pick the Pokeweed

Wear gloves and avoid the roots. The next step is physically harvesting the plant. I highly recommend wearing gloves when you touch the raw pokeweed to avoid any poisoning from skin contact, though many do not. Perhaps more importantly, make sure that you have a sharp cutting tool and that you cut the pokeweed above the root system, as the root system is the most toxic part of the plant. Again, a lot of people just pull it up roots and all and are fine, but being as these roots are the most deadly part of the plant, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Pick a whole lot of it. When you get the weed home and it is ready to cook, you will remove the edible leaves from the stem, and then the leaves will go through an extensive cooking process to lessen the plant’s toxicity. This will cause what once looked like a great deal of pokeweed to reduce in size immensely. For example, a paper grocery bag full will probably only yield about 2 large servings of poke sallet.

Cook it the same day. I would recommend that you cook the weed the same day you harvest it, but if you can’t, educate everyone in the household that is mature enough to understand the plant’s toxicity, and keep the pokeweed out of reach of small children and pets.

Poke Sallet Recipe

Poke sallet with fried potatoes and salt pork

Poke sallet with fried potatoes and salt pork

Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

2 hours

3 hours

5 hours

Pick a lot. The pokeweed reduces down drastically.

Ingredients

  • Pokeweed leaves, as much as you can find
  • Bacon fat, enough to coat pan
  • Crushed bacon, to taste
  • Salt & pepper, to taste

Note: Below, you'll find a set of succinct instructions, followed by much more involved instructions. If this is your first experience with pokeweed, as with all steps involved in making this poisonous plant fit for consumption, it will be worth your while to take note of the instructions' finer points and read the longer version very thoroughly.

Quick Instructions

  1. Remove pokeweed leaves from plant.
  2. Rinse pokeweed leaves in cool water.
  3. Bring leaves to rolling boil in large pot for 20 minutes.
  4. Pour leaves into sieve and rinse in cool water.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 two more times.
  6. Panfry pokeweed leaves for a couple of minutes in bacon grease.
  7. Add crushed bacon, salt, and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve and enjoy.

Detailed Instructions

The following is a Southern-style of preparing poke sallet, so of course it involves frying. For those of you who prefer your food healthier, this dish doesn't have to be fried, but it is essential that it go through the multi-stage boiling and rinsing detoxification process first regardless of how you choose to incorporate it in your food.

  1. I recommend wearing gloves at the beginning of the cooking process. You want to start by removing all the leaves from the plant. This is the part you will eat. Dispose of the rest of the plant in a safe manner.
  2. Wash the leaves in cool water. Then place the leaves in a pot of water, and bring them to a rolling boil for 20 minutes. Next pour the leaves into a sieve. Rinse the leaves with cool water.
  3. Repeat the above boiling and rinsing process at least one more time. Personally, like most people I know that prepare poke sallet, I only do the boiling and rinse twice, but many recipes recommend boiling and rinsing 3 times.
  4. You are likely safe to dispose of your gloves after the first boiling and rinsing process. The thinking behind this is that you probably are no longer at risk of contact poisoning after the first boil/rinse, and continuing to wear the same pair of gloves might cause toxins to be put back into the sallet that you have worked so hard to extract.
  5. If you are very cautious, one might use a new pair of gloves for each handling of the pokeweed leaves throughout the boil/rinse process. That being said, many people who have prepared poke sallet throughout their lives have never used gloves at all with no perceivable consequence.
  6. You definitely want to wash your boiling pot out after each boiling cleanse as not to put any toxins back in the pokeweed leaves that you have taken out. The same goes for your sieve. Clean it before each new rinse.
  7. After you have properly detoxified the leaves, you are going to panfry them for a couple of minutes in bacon grease. Last, you add a bit of crumbled bacon and salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve your poke sallet as a side. It is an excellent compliment for most any meal. The flavor is quite similar to fresh, cooked spinach, but subtler in nature. If you like fresh, cooked greens and you follow the steps properly, you will enjoy this dish.
However you choose to prepare pokeweed, the boil/rinse process is essential.

However you choose to prepare pokeweed, the boil/rinse process is essential.

Additional Nutritional Information

You might be interested to know that poke sallet is a substantial source of vitamins and minerals, especially if it isn't of the fried variety.

The leaves of the pokeweed are the plant's most readily edible part.

The leaves of the pokeweed are the plant's most readily edible part.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: We have eaten pokeweed and poke sallet our whole life without any boiling at all. We pick it with our bare hands and also eat the stem. Have some people actually died from doing it this way?

Answer: I've heard a lot of reference to it being deadly, but I've been unable to find a specific case study to that effect.

I know for certain that it can give you diarrhea if uncooked. That you haven't gotten sick may be true, but I do not condone eating it without at least one parboil.

It's a free country. You can do what you want, but I think it's unwise.

Back to it causing death, those it would kill would probably not be healthy adults. People with immunosuppression, especially organ function problems, would really be putting their lives in jeopardy eating underprepared pokeweed.

In addition, I'm of the opinion it could really cause fetal problems and very possibly fetal death if consumed by pregnant women.

Question: I grew up on poke salad in Arkansas. It was commonly mixed with turnip, mustard greens, and spinach, and eaten with crackling or hot water cornbread. Have you tried it?

Answer: No, I have not tried poke salad. It sounds wonderful.

I never tire of hearing the ways poke can be fixed. Like any green, the possibilities are endless.

I really like cornbread, and this sounds like a winning combination.

Question: Does poke salad smell spicey?

Answer: No, not particularly, unless it's seasoned to be spicy.

It's like a cooked green.

Question: How long will poke salad keep before it's cooked?

Answer: Like any consumable plant, if you don't take measures to preserve it, the sooner you cook it, the better. You probably have at least three days or so before it goes bad.

© 2015 Larry Rankin

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