Pokeweed: the Fugu of the Vegetable Kingdom

Well, it’s all uphill from here. When I decided to explore the food options growing wild in my area, I knew that I would, sooner or later, have to cowboy up and try pokeweed. Mature pokeweed plants are poisonous, but the sprouts, when gathered young enough, have very little of the toxin in them. The cut-off for when they are safe to eat is generally in the 8″ tall range, but it’s a little fuzzy depending on your source. I never thought I’d be one of those people who died doing something stupid, but I was reconsidering as I ate my poke sprouts. I would really prefer to leave the phrase “poisonous weeds” out of my obituary, I guess.

Finding Poke

Poke is really easy to find in the summer, when it’s full grown, but quite difficult to spot during its edible phase, which is around May in the Great Lakes region. When mature, It’s one of the more spectacular weeds in the temperate zones, with thick, purplish stalks, big oblong leaves, and clusters of purple-black berries. I don’t have my digital camera running yet, but there are some pictures on Wikipedia:

Poke Pics

It grows along the edges of forests in disturbed areas. I found my patch alongside a parking lot, but have seen other specimens along railroad tracks and in vacant lots. It’s a perennial, so if you can find some in the summer, note the location so that you can return in the spring. The stalks die in the fall, but they usually remain through the harvest period. I found my patch by looking for last year’s dead, sun-bleached stalks, and harvested the new growth coming up beneath them.

Harvesting Poke

As mentioned, I avoided any sprouts that were taller than 8 inches or so. In each cluster, there was a range of height, from 4″ to 16″, and sticking with the mid-sized sprouts worked best. I chose my sprout, traced it back to ground level with my hand, and bent the stalk until it snapped off. This is similar to the method for harvesting asparagus by hand, and assures that you’re getting the most tender part of the sprout. I gathered about a dozen sprouts, enough for a single serving.

Preparing Poke

Upon getting the pokeweed sprouts home, I pulled off all of the leaves, leaving the little cluster of baby leaves at the top. These leaves can be prepared as greens, but I don’t have a good greens recipe, and there weren’t many leaves, anyway. I tried peeling the stems, as advised by my guidebook, but they were too tender, and the skin kind of just rubbed off. I did use a paring knife to shave off any part of the stem with a purplish hue, in the possibly-mistaken assumption that the color announces the presence of the toxin.

Once they were cleaned, I cooked them just like beans, asparagus, or broccoli–in a pan, with a little bit of water, and steamed until bright green and tender. A dab of butter and a little salt, and they were served as a side dish.

Eating Poke

It tasted very much like a very young green bean, or a mild asparagus, or the white stalk of broccoli. Kind of a general “young vegetable” taste. It was not a culinarily transcendent experience, but it was also not very foreign–this just tasted like an everyday vegetable. I was expecting something out of the ordinary. I was more relieved than dissappointed, though. Making a lifestyle shift towards local eating is a lot easier without any strong shifts in taste. It did take a bit more time than asparagus to prepare–pulling off the leaves is a little time-consuming. It probably takes about as long as it takes to prepare a head of broccoli.

I will definitely be eating pokeweed sprouts again next spring, although I may someday get to the point at which my asparagus patch is producing enough spears to fill that part of the spring menu. If I find a particularly fruitful poke patch this summer, I may attempt to freeze a quantity of poke, as it seems like it would make a great frozen vegetable–it’s got enough substance to not get mushy, and a pleasant enough flavor that it could be slipped into a lot of dishes.

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4 Responses to “Pokeweed: the Fugu of the Vegetable Kingdom”

  1. klr Says:

    On May 16, after first reading this post along with a couple of other resources, I took the leap and tried eating the poke growing in my front yard. (suburban Toledo, Ohio) While the shoots were reasonably palatable, they paled in comparison to the greens.

    I picked the stems under about 10 inches tall, and plucked the leaves, discarding any that seemed overly large or bug-eaten, washed them all under cold water for about 30 seconds, brought a pot of water to boil, while heating some water for the second boiling in a tea kettle, then boiled the leaves for about 2 minutes, poured off the water, then poured the hot water from the tea kettle over the leaves and boiled them again for 4-5 minutes. I then drained them again, and served them with some Marzetti spinich salad dressing. I intended enough to serve my family of four, but wife and kids called and said they were eating out. I told them not to bring me anything and dug in.

    Concerned that poke can be poisonous, my intention was to eat just a little and make sure it didn’t kill me. I had a big plate full, and took a few bites. I began to think “maybe I should stop now and wait and see if I have a bad reaction to this.” I took a couple of more bites and thought again “I should probably stop now.” Took a few more bites and thought “well, it has been a few minutes and I feel all right.” Then I finished the rest of the poke, probably eating almost a quarter-pound all by myself. I just couldn’t help myself, even with a theoretical fear of death in the back of my mind. It was that good!

    I would describe it as similar to greens of the many other types, though nice and firm, without any of the bitterness you sometimes get. I would describe the flavor as a little bit artichoke-like, though quite mild. The were far superior to the spinach greens I grew last summer.

    I wholeheartedly endorse trying the greens as well as the stems. If you don’t, you are really missing something. Any you can probably still find them for a little while yet.

    • didi Says:

      Hi Kir –

      I am writinga book on a farmer who forages and grows wild plants in Massachusetts. could i use this passage of yours in my pokeweed chapter? Could you tell me you full name if possible to credit you for your brevity and humour?
      Didi Emmons – author of Vegetarian Planet and upcoming Edible Planet
      quote:
      Concerned that poke can be poisonous, my intention was to eat just a little and make sure it didn’t kill me. I had a big plate full, and took a few bites. I began to think “maybe I should stop now and wait and see if I have a bad reaction to this.” I took a couple of more bites and thought again “I should probably stop now.” Took a few more bites and thought “well, it has been a few minutes and I feel all right.” Then I finished the rest of the poke, probably eating almost a quarter-pound all by myself. I just couldn’t help myself, even with a theoretical fear of death in the back of my mind. It was that good!

  2. glge Says:

    I just picked my first haul of the season–I’ll be sure to try the leaves this time around. Thanks for being brave, and thanks for commenting!

  3. Maurice Says:

    I have been eating poke weed for a long time. Usually stir fried with crushed garlic and a bit of black pepper and salt. I add a tbs or so of water and let it steam until tender. Will try some onion and ham with it some time.

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