Thursday, December 26, 2013

Poke Salad Annie Had Good Reason to be Mean

     I was out for a run one nice morning this past fall - going my usual slow pace.  Two much younger and fitter women passed me and kept on going.  They were carrying water bottles and they stopped ahead of me and nipped into some green, healthy vegetation; popping out minus the water bottles.  I know the greenway that we were running on well and the plants that grow along side of virtually every inch of it.  So, I called out to them to stop and wait for me.  When I got to them I explained to them that they needed to retrieve those bottles and then run straight to the nearest public bathroom, about a quarter of a mile and wash the bottles and themselves well with soap and water.
     Without realizing it, those two had walked into a vary healthy patch of pokeweed and used it as a place to store their water bottles.  That's right poke weed as in poke sallet, and famed in the song 'Poke Salad Annie'.  Why, you might ask, would that be a problem.  After all, don't people eat it?  While it is true that people do eat it, touching it can be a real problem.
     Pokeweed is a common native plant found throughout much of the United States and eastern Canada.  Only a handful of western states and western Canada do not support this plant.  It is a large perennial herb that can reach eight to twelve feet tall in a single growing season.  It is commonly found growing in open woods, roadsides, damp thickets and clearings.  The plant itself dies down to the ground with a hard freeze, but the root remains viable and regenerates in the spring.
     The plant can be easily identified by its large smooth-edged leaves that can reach up to a foot in length and its thick fleshy stems that range in color from green to red.  Flowers are found in long clusters.  They are small white five-sepal flowers without petals.  The fruit emerges as long clusters of green berries that eventually ripen to a dark purple.
     The entire plant (flowers, berries, roots, stems and leaves) is poisonous.  Among the chemicals that the plant contains are water-soluble triterpene saponins including phytolaccigenin.  The plant also contains phytolaccin and phytolaccatoxin.  These can be broken down by cooking - thus the making of poke sallet.  Cooking requires boiling and multiple water changes.  However, if not properly cooked, they can cause abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and in sever cases convulsions and death.  Toxin amounts are greater in the berries and roots.  Thorough cooking breaks down these toxins, and that along with the plant's ready availability explain why it was a favorite food source among especially the poor in the eastern part of the country. 
     Most country people know that the plant can be eaten if cooked, but few people know is that it is not safe to collect.  Besides the toxins listed, the plant also contains a type of protein lectin that can cause serious blood cell abnormalities and an alkaloid, phytolaccin.  Serious cases of poisoning can cause anemia, heart rate and respiration changes, convulsions and death from respiratory failure.  The juice of the plant can be absorbed through the skin making it a serious dermal toxin.  It is more dangerous if the handler has any cuts or breaks in their skin.  Because of this, it should never be handled with bare hands.  Ironically, the heart and respiratory symptoms from poisoning can cause brain damage and subsequent mood changes.  Thus, Poke Salad Annie might really have been a mean enough to make 'the alligators look tame' because of eating poke weed.