The great pokeberry debate

pokeberryI’m not one to disagree with the host of a party, particularly one who is a family friend and respected naturalist. But when that host makes a statement about the toxicity of pokeberries being overrated, what’s an environmental educator to do but raise the alarm to my fellow partygoers?

Just days earlier, I had taught a foraging class in which I explained that young pokeweed sprouts are edible only in the spring, before they’ve reached a height of six to eight inches. The plant becomes more toxic as it matures, and some experts argue that it’s not safe to eat at any stage in the growing process, despite the fact that “poke salet” was once a staple in the rural South.

All this is not to detract from the pokeweed plants’ benefits to wildlife, which are many. While poisonous to humans, the berries are an important food source to many bird species, as well as raccoons, foxes, possums, and white-footed mice. The juice of the pokeberry was traditionally used as a dye. In fact, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was even written in pokeberry ink!

To give him credit, my host was armed with a scientific study that claimed it would take 45 pounds of pokeberries to kill an adult human. I briefly considered suggesting he put that claim to the test. But only very briefly. I like him too much.

Visit the Arboretum now to see lovely purple pokeberries in the meadow! Just don’t try eating them, please.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator


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