The pokeberries are ripe in my garden—but they aren’t something I planted, nor will I harvest and eat them! American Pokeberries, Phytolacca americana, are a the fruit of a native wild plant that is nearly entirely quite toxic to humans and animals, yet prepared and eaten properly are nutritious and even healing, and also make an interesting red dye. It’s a matter of learning about the plant and being careful, something humans had learned to be over millennia or they would simply die. But cooking and rinsing the young leaves, only young leaves, no stems, several times produces “poke salad” which you may have read about in pioneer or southern cultural novels. The berry pulp has toxins but the seeds are the highly toxic part, so carefully cooking the berries without crushing or softening the seeds produces a pretty red dye, though it’s not as intense a color as you would expect, nor very long-lasting.
The pokeberries show up in my garden courtesy of the birds. They can eat the berry, but the seed is toxic to them as well, so they carefully eat the berry and swallow the whole thing, excreting the seed with a proper amount of fertilizer to give it a good start when it sprouts the next year. These seeds are favorites of cardinals, catbirds and mockingbirds, so if you want to invite those species to your yard you can carefully bring home a bunch of purple pokeberries, preferrably in a container so you don’t get any juices on your hands, and just bury them stem and all in a spot you’d like them to grow. Hopefully next spring you’ll see vibrant but simple green leaves with red stems emerge from the soil.
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