American pokeweed or pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) is a large, semi-succulent herbaceous perennial plant. It likes fertile but gnarly soil, which accurately reflects the duplicitous nature of the plant. While some blame the death of their horses and their own poisoning on the consumption of poke, others come from families that prepared its young spring leafs with onions and other wild greens, in a poke salad or "poke salet," served with cornbread and butter. Despite its horror stories, the pokeweed is the first to sprout green leafs after a cold winter with little to eat in terms of fresh produce. The young spring greens, if boiled again and again (dumping the used water each time), are edible. This homey dish was so popular in the south that in 1968 Tony Joe White wrote a song about a poor girl who fed herself on its leafs. It begins:
If some of ya'll never been down South too much...
I'm gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you'll understand
What I'm talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the
woods and the fields,
looks somethin' like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she'd go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it...
Carry it home and cook it for supper, 'cause that's about all they had to eat,
But they did all right.
Before it was outlawed, the juice from pokeberries was used to enhance the color of lackluster red wines, while soldiers in the American Civil War used its juice as ink with which to write home with. During the 11th United States presidential campaign, supporters of James Polk, decorated themselves with garlands of the eye-catching plants around their lapels.
Pokeweed, pokeberry, poke, ink berry, or pigeon berry, spreads like wildfire because of its abundantly packed berries. There are ten shiny black seeds to each little berry, which pass through the digestive system of birds fully intact because of their hard coats. The northern mocking bird, brown thrasher, eastern bluebird, American crow, cardinal, starling, red-bellied woodpecker, and mourning dove are all known to feast on the pokeberry.
The avian affinity for pokeberries explains the plants' presence in Brooklyn's own Prospect Park. Despite some park volunteers' efforts to uproot them, they're going strong. I've spotted some bright pink stalks that are taller than I am. Although the berry season has just recently ended, they will be back before we know it. In her book on natural dyeing, Rebecca Burgess, provides a perfected pokeberry dye vat recipe, while several other variations exist on the internet. The generic name is derived from the Greek work for plant, phyton, and the French word for a dark red pigment, lac. The colors you can get from pokeberries are anywhere from dark red, light pink, and warm aubergine. Soon enough Sewing Seeds will be providing a natural dye map to Prospect Park, and pokeweed will be all over it.