How to Identify, Harvest, and Prepare Pokeweed and Poke Sallet
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 prepared for consumption correctly, it is actually considered a delicacy by many Southerners. In fact, in its cooked form, pokeweed is so popular that many Southern states hold yearly festivals in the early spring to commemorate it.
The cooked version of this weed is properly referred to as "poke sallet," but many are not in tune with the proper pronunciation, so it is not uncommon to hear it referred to as "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." For us Southerners, the word "sallet" 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 is important because, for reasons that will be made clear to you later, pokeweed should never be eaten raw.
In this article, I will give you an overview of the dangers of this weed, how and when one might harvest it in relative safety, and then detail a popular way to prepare this dish in a true Southern fashion (in that order).
Know That Pokeweed Is Poisonous
About the Poisonousness of Pokeweed
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.
Which Part Is Poisonous?
The short answer: all of it.
The long answer: Poison can be found throughout this plant, and only birds are immune to the effects. Let's look at the different life-stages and parts of the plant.
The Life Stages
- A baby plant. When this plant first sprouts in the early spring, it is at its least poisonous. Throughout the maturation of the pokeweed, the plant's toxicity increases.
- A fruiting plant. At some point, the weed will fruit. The fully ripened fruit of the pokeweed are quite toxic.
- A 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 became ill or die from ingesting these berries. Because they have harmed so many children over the years, some have suggested trying to eliminate pokeweed altogether.
- Roots. The most toxic part of the pokeweed is the root system. The roots of the weed are by far the most potentially lethal part of it.
- Leave and stems. You guessed it: the leaves and stems are also toxic.
- The fruit. Like I mentioned about, you definitely don't want to eat the fruit, as it too is toxic. Its ripened berries are usually a shiny, eye-catching black.
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.
Knowing the Risk, Would You Give Poke Sallet a Try?
What Happens If You Get Pokeweed Poisoning?
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 age of the individual affected.
Are certain groups more at risk?
As with most anything that is harmful, the extremely young and old are more likely to have the most pronounced ill effects. 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.
What does pokeweed poisoning look like?
Recovery from a light poisoning can be expected in 1 to 2 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 effected.
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, and though our mature bodies may handle them with ease.
Are you properly terrified yet, or do you just think us Southerners are crazy?
I'm Ready. How Do I Harvest and Prepare This Stuff?
This Weed Is Ready to Eat!
Step One: Find the Plant
With all the awful things that can happen, I still contend that if you put forth the effort to prepare this dish properly, you will be ok. Proper pokeweed harvesting is as important as any other step in safely preparing this sallet.
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 1 and 2 feet tall, because this is when toxicity levels in the plant are at there lowest. Remember to weat gloves! At this point in the plant's development, it is completely green and looks like many other large-leafed green plant.
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-kept. 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 as far as using your sniffer is concerned. Even Google doesn't have a clear answer for what this plant might smell like.
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 6- 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 immediately, 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.
A Five-Minute Documentary About Pokeweed
Pick This (Preferably While Wearing Gloves)
Step Two: Safely Picking 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 salad.
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.
- Pokeweed leaves
- Bacon fat, enough to coat pan
- Crushed bacon, to taste
- Salt & pepper, to taste
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.
Poke Sallet Recipe
- Remove pokeweed leaves from plant.
- Rinse pokeweed leaves in cool water.
- Bring leaves to rolling boil in large pot for 20 minutes.
- Pour leaves into sieve and rinse in cool water.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 two more times.
- Panfry pokeweed leaves for a couple of minutes in bacon grease.
- Add crushed bacon, salt, and pepper to taste.
- Serve and enjoy.
Preparing Poke Sallet
The following is the Southern-style way 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
|Serving size: 4 oz|
|Calories from Fat||108|
|% Daily Value *|
|Fat 12 g||18%|
|Saturated fat 4 g||20%|
|Unsaturated fat 8 g|
|Carbohydrates 3 g||1%|
|Sugar 2 g|
|Fiber 2 g||8%|
|Protein 6 g||12%|
|Cholesterol 9 mg||3%|
|Sodium 250 mg||10%|
|* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.|
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.