Enthusiastic gardeners have long insisted that “poke sallet” would take the place of spinach and other garden greens if only it could be easily gown from seed. Wherever it is found it the wild–and that includes a very large portion of the country–pokeweed provides the most sought-after tender spring greens, first choice of all knowledgeable connoisseurs and gourmets. Will domesticating it bring wider popularity and perhaps market as a garden vegetable? Well, we’re going to see whether the old prophecy will come true because scientists at the University of Arkansas Experiment Station have finally unlocked the secrets of the pokeberry and discovered how to increase and speed up its germination so that it is now comparable with other garden seeds.
Of course in poke country not many have waited for this great day for it has long been known that poke greens can be tamed and brought into the family garden just by digging up a few clumps of the old roots after the plant had gone dormant in the fall and replanting them along a fence row where they can grow and flourish undisturbed by the plow.
Pokeweed ( Phytolacca americana ) is a hardy perennial through most of the middle and southern states. It likes rich soil with plenty of moisture, humus and organic matter der ideal conditions it will grow to shrub-like proportions, six feet tall with branches spreading over an equal area. Given room, polk is an attractive plant with dark green leaves brightened at almost every axile by a tassel of yellowish white blossoms. The blooms are followed by clusters of berries that change from green to red and finally turn a rich, royal dark purple in the fall.
It is these berries that give pokeweed its less familiar name of “Inkberry.” During the Civil War many a letter home was written by a soldier boy who fashioned his own quill from a wild turkey wing feather and squeezed the juice from ripe pokeberries to provide the ink. Some of these letters, legible as the day they were written, can be found in museums today, attesting to the permanence and enduring qualities of inkberry juice.
A bush burdened with colorful polkberries in autumn is a most pleasing sight, and the fruit is loved by a host of birds–including the robin, mockingbird, brown thrasher, blue jay, catbird, quail and others. There are millions and billions of seeds–fifty or more in every berry–pounds on every plant. What a bountiful feast to spread before our feathered songsters! Seeing a berry-laden bush in autumn and realizing that each individual berry is packed with tiny seeds fills one with awe and amazement at the prodigality of Nature . . . and her downright wastefulness. Poke is never a common weed and seldom takes over or becomes much of a nuisance simply because so few of the billions of seeds produced each year can find conditions suitable for germination ad growth.
The hard-coated, obstinate poke seed must pass through the alimentary canal of a bird or animal to soften and prepare it for germination. In this process the seed is subject to prolonged heat for a bird’s normal body temperature may be as high as 106 degrees. At the same time the seeds are at the mercy of the harsh action of powerful digestive juices containing strong acids and the scarifying process of peristalsis. The few seeds that escape complete digestion, then, account for the comparative scarcity of poke plants.
To solve the problem of germinating pokeweed, scientists learned to soak the seed for exactly five minutes in concentrated sulphuric acid (technical grade). ‘The seeds are completely submerged in the solution, and at the end of the soaking period they are washed quickly and thoroughly in running water to stop the action and remove all traces of acid. Seed treated in this manner germinates at the rate of 80 to 90 percent in two weeks’ time, while untreated seed in a test plot showed only 40 percent germination after six weeks or longer.
Spring crops of poke greens are produced by planting seed about the same time as spinach. Commercial plantings in the south are handled as an established perennial crop like asparagus. Only one cutting of greens is made during the first year in the field. In the second growing season three cuttings are made; in mid-May, early June and late June. Until the plants have heavy root systems and are well established, extensive cutting may easily destroy them. North of the Mason-Dixon Line poke is not reliably perennial and probably should be treated as an annual, making three or more cuttings and then plowing the stubble under for green manure.
Young new growth, up to six inches high, and growing through a light mulch of hay or leaves that blanches the polk foliage to a pale green, offers the most tender and delicate greens. Then the tender stalk up to half an inch in diameter–but still delicate enough to snap at finger touch–can be trimmed and served like asparagus.
Do not be tempted by its delicacy to use poke for salads in a raw form. Uncooked pokeweed can be violently cathartic and cause severe poisoning. Because poke is a tender vegetable it should be cooked quickly in boiling water, lightly salted, and served quickly with drawn butter and a dash of lemon juice. The tender stalks are handled just like asparagus and are especially good served on toast with hollandaise or a mild cheese sauce.
If you plan to harvest pokeweed seeds you should collect the ripe berries in early August. Only fully ripened berries should be picked. Place these in a crock or other non-metallic container and crush them. The pulp should then be allowed to ferment for three or four days. After this period of fermentation, add water to separate the seeds from the pulp and skin. Spread the washed seeds in a thin layer on cheesecloth or a newspaper to dry. The clean, dry seed can then be treated with acid and planted immediately to provide fall and winter greens . . . or the dry seed may be held in storage for spring planting.
Where pokeweed is a hardy perennial, well-rooted and established plants are amazingly regenerative and persistent. Under such conditions, the plant will produce new growth even under extensive and severe cutting. For fresh winter greens, the heavy root clumps can be lifted and stored in a freeze-proof root cellar where they will send up tender shoots in early spring, very like endive or chicory.
Poke needs only light blanching before packaging and storing in the freezer locker. It may also be canned and preserved like spinach or mustard greens.
Do not use any part of the poke roots or seeds, as they are said to be poisonous. Roots of old plants are coarse and woody and would not be attractive in any case . . . but if you’re growing poke as an annual garden green, there is a temptation to pull and use the whole plant, like beet thinnings. It’s better to be on the safe side. Cut off and discard the root portions.