Poke (Phytolacca americana), also known as Pokeweed, Pokeroot, Pokeberry is one of my favorite medicinal herbs. It wasn't always as such. For many years, I was blinded by the many warnings found in the majority of Herbals and field manuals about the poisonousness of this plant. Looking at this impressive plant year after year, growing in the fence rows, I knew there was something more here than meets the eye and there most certainly was. Again, let me state that as with all potentially toxic plants, an intimate understanding and proper dosage is all important. You would not overdose yourself on a heart medication, so why should a potent plant be any different?
Location: Unlike many common medicinal herbs, Poke is a native of North America, and we are blessed to have it. Phytolacca grows wild in fence rows, against out-buildings, under trees, anywhere that man can't easily weed-wack. It may be found from lower Canada down to Florida and west to Texas/Missouri--roughly the Eastern half of the nation.
Description: A large perennial which can grow to heights of 10 feet. The base of the stem is reddish which fades upward into green. Its round stems are large, hollow, and hairless. Leaves are large, oval, and toothless (5-12") with wavy edges. This plant blooms from June-September in small spike clusters. The flattened berries ripen from light greenish immature fruits into distinctive black-purple ones. The valuable root is large, fibrous, and irregular with many branches. The root is easy to work with being soft. The freshly dug root is whitish on the inside and covered with a brown skin on the outside.
Parts Used: The root was medicinally listed in major American drug texts until early in the 20th century. The berries and leaves have been employed to a much lesser extent in folk medicine's past.
Medicinal Properties: Medical qualities which have been linked to Poke are alternative (metabolism balancer), anodyne (painkiller), antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antirheumatic, antitumor (cancer fighting), cathartic (bowel evacuation), emetic (induce vomiting), immune stimulant, laxative, and lymphatic decongestant. Quite an impressive list, eh? This is probably why much of traditional Herbalogy is poo-poohed by the medical professions. How can a medicine have so many uses? Certainly the modern refined drugs have only one or two specific indications. Well, this is exactly the reason why many herbs have multiple medical indications. Plants are not refined, single drugs, but a package of many chemical compounds which work together to make that unique plant viable. When one prescribes a whole herb extract, a whole series of extracted components are being given to the patient, not one. Luckily, most of these plant compounds are synergistic and will often improve the medicinal values of the complete plant extract as a remedy. As is the nature of the beast, that extract can have multiple uses and influences on varied metabolic functions.
Poke was first judiciously utilized and known in 19th century medicine as a emetic and cathartic. Those were the days when our medical physicians highly relied on the process of purging body toxins via both the mouth and anus as a routine method of achieving lost health. Such body evacuations have long gone out of fashion which is why I think Poke has been dismissed as a valuable medicinal herb. It was the Eclectics of the last century that saw in Poke (Phytolacca) something much more valuable than its purging properties.
John King's American Dispensatory reviews the other virtues of Poke. It says Poke is an important therapeutic aid in skin conditions. It will kill scabies infestations, sooth inflamed skin, and aid in healing dermal abscesses/ulcerations/boils. Phytolacca is indicated in chronic eczema, psoriasis, varicose veins, syphilitic types of eruptions, fissures, and painful lymphatic enlargements. It can be employed both internally and externally for such conditions. King's text further praises the usefulness of Poke in diseases of the mouth and throat: laryngitis, tracheitis, influenza, diphtheria, tonsillitis, stomatitis, follicular pharyngitis, and ordinary sore mouth. It will stimulate the mucous membranes of the mouth and promote glandular activity. Sore, irritated, inflamed throats have been cured by it. The Eclectics held Poke in the highest esteem in glandular conditions of the mammary. It shines as a remedy in acute mastitis. It has further been shown of value in treating granular conjunctivitis and other eye inflammations. It holds relieve for certain rheumatic conditions. King describes the use of the root and leaves: "The root, roasted in hot ashes until soft, and then mashed and applied as a poultice, is unrivaled in felons (purulent infection) and tumors of various kinds. It discusses them rapidly, or if too far advanced, hastens their suppuration." He goes on to tell that an infusion of the bruised leaves may be applied to indolent ulcers with the best of results. Phytolacca has had a long history as a cancer fighting herb. One of its name is Cancerroot.
The benefits of Poke Root as an immune stimulant and lymphatic decongestant is a more modern revelation. Simon Mills in his text, Principals and Practice of Phytotherapy, describes the immunological stimulating properties of Poke. He cites PWM (poke weed mitogen) as the factor which stimulates lymphocyte production and increases the number of blood plasma cells. Poke, also, contains LSF (lymphocyte stimulating factors) which induces lymphocytes to differentiate into lgM-secreting cells and multiply as such. Further, LSF causes polyclonal B-cells to differentiate into lgM-secreting cells. Lastly, there seems to be an antiviral protein present showing laboratory activity against many plant and animal viruses.
Veterinary Medicine has never embraced Phytolacca. Poke extracts should offer important relieve in skin conditions. The soothing of inflammation, pain, and swellings by application as leg paints, liniments, poultices, salves, and washes has been overlooked. It could offer a unique means of stimulating the immune system in the horse, and Poke should be of value in nasal/throat problems in the competing race horse. The possibilities this herb offers in just these few indications should be enough to stimulate experimentation.
Here is a very interesting page on poke root and berry that suggests it could be useful with bone spurs among other things! Check it out at: