Walk around South Philly until you find an abandoned garden, or an ally with cracked concrete or another edge habitat. Chances are, you’ll find a four or five foot, reddish stalked, handsome perennial, with long medium green leaves and graceful clusters of deep purple berries. Behold the pokeberry!
Maria Merlino Copyright 2015
The species is indigenous to this area and grows over many parts of the country. During mid-September, the berries are ripening, but please don’t eat them even though they look like blueberries or grapes. They will make you very sick. However, they are a good food source for the birds, especially song birds. Pokeberry is spread by seeds dropped by the birds and new plants form a tap root. A song was written about it in 1968 by Tony Joe White called Polk Salad Annie (The Gator’s Got Your Granny!).
Native American shamans valued its properties for medicinal purposes. Poke is a contraction of “puccoon” or “pocan”, which the Algonquin Indians of Delaware called the well-known wild plant. It means blood. Since many solutions to medical problems have come directly from the pharmacopeia of the Native Americans, scientists are investigating pokeweed extract as a possible anti-cancer drug and auto-immune cure.
The pokeberry helped convey thoughts and messages to loved ones and because of it, correspondences are still read. In Colonial times, ink was made from the pokeberry. Soldiers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, wrote countless letters home with a feather quill and the juice of the pokeberry. The color starts out as a deep red, but oxides to brown over the years. When Thomas Jefferson created a draft of the Constitution, he used pokeberry ink on paper made of hemp. Early settlers placed fermented pokeberries in a hollowed-out gourd to prepare a mixture used to dye cotton and wool to get a beautiful cherry red. Unfortunately the color fades after a while.
If you do find a pokeberry plant on your property and it’s not interfering with your garden, let it grow! It’s part of the history, science and medicine of our city.
Maria Merlino is an internationally recognized designer. Her patterns have been published in books, magazines, Amazon ebooks, on her own website and for Associated Content, now known as yahoo.voices. Maria is a columnist for her local weekly, The South Philadelphia Public Record, where her column, Within Walking Distance,covers businesses, food, entertainment, personalities and politics. Maria is also a writer and copy editor for Row Home Magazine, where she specializes in writing about people, places and things in South Philadelphia.