Poke Salad, a Mountain Tradition
By Steve Roark
A family tradition my mom kept was to seek out young poke sprouts in the spring and make poke salad, a king of cooked green. Back before grocery store chains and refrigeration, country folk came out of winter craving a fresh green to eat, and poke was one of the newly sprouted plants that were sought out, along with “creesies” or spring crest. The lack of fresh green vegetables during the winter months sometimes caused a vitamin deficiency, and poke fit the bill as a spring pick me up due to its very high vitamin A and C content.
Poke, also called pokeweed or pokeberry, is considered a weed that comes up in waste places that are not regularly mown. It is a perennial plant growing up to eight feet tall, and has fairly large, spear shaped leaves with smooth edges. The stem is a purplish red color near the base and is hollow. The outer branches are green with a reddish tinge. There are clusters of white flowers in the spring that later produce bunches of dark purple berries in the fall.
Poke is a plant of contradiction, being listed as both edible and poisonous. The older stems, the roots, and the berries are considered toxic and should not be consumed. The very young and tender new shoots are considered the only part of the plant that is edible. These should be less than 8 inches long and have no red color on the stem. They normally have young immature leaves with them. To prepare them they are boiled for 30 minutes in two changes of water. My mom liked to flavor boiled poke by frying it in bacon grease and serving as a side vegetable.
Poke is noted as having medicinal qualities as well. The high vitamin content of the cooked greens was used to treat scurvy, and the berries and roots were used as a poultice to treat sores, rheumatism, and bruises. The berries are very popular with songbirds, fox, and opossum. They are especially relished by mourning dove, which have been known to become intoxicated by eating fermented berries.