Pokeroot (The Cancer Root)

127002629Some of poke’s many names are: Red Ink Plant, Virginia Poke, and Ink Berry. The ripe, deeply purple to reddish-purple berries are among the very first natural inks of the new world. So enduring is ink made from pokeroot berries that it is still to be seen in museums. The berries also produce multitudes of black seeds which the birds love and are said to become intoxicated from eating. I haven’t really noticed any birds on a ‘pokeberry high,’ odd considering the vigorous stands of poke growing here and there. Maybe I’m not paying proper attention, or just think that’s how birds are. Come to think of it, we do have extremely euphoric birds in late summer.

pokeshootAs to the edible shoots, these fat young sprouts grow beside the withered remains of the former season’s plants, the only part that’s not potentially poisonous. Tender shoots gathered in the spring were so popular that they were carried back to Europe by early explorers and proclaimed delicious. The mature and then poisonous stalks take on a purplish hue in place of the appealing green of the younger plants. *Warning, when poke shoots change from green to that deeper reddish-purple color, they’re no longer edible.

Pokeweed berriesMedicinal uses: The large poisonous roots were collected and dried in the fall. Indians and colonists cut the dried root into pieces and steeped a level tablespoonful of the root in two cups of boiling water, then drained the liquid and dosed themselves sparingly by the spoonful. In small doses, it stimulates the glandular network by acting similarly to cortisone. Poke was believed to be the most effective drug that could favorably alter the course of an ailment, having the power to stimulate the body to heal, assuming the patient wasn’t overdosed.  It can also make you quite sick and even prove fatal. One of those ‘Oops, guess that was too much,’ treatments. Tea was also brewed from the ripe berries, and used sparingly. Poultices and salves made from the roots and berries were more safely applied than imbibing the tea. Good old pokeroot salve.

***Pokeroot is also known as the cancer root and has some amazing possibilities in treating various cancers. For more visit this fascinating link:

11 responses to “Pokeroot (The Cancer Root)

  1. Very interesting Beth. I have very fond memories of poke berry “tattoos” as a kid living in the country, as well as secret writing, where we somehow came up with the ridiculous notion that it was only visible to our select group. Ah, the wonderful things kids dream up. We even dared each other to taste it (YUCK), and felt very brave as we were warned it was poisonous! Obviously we didn’t taste enough of it to do damage. However, there was the summer of the new white dress purchased for a wedding we were attending. I’ll just say my bottom looked a lot like it had been painted with poke berry juice! Miss you girl!! Jinny


  2. Interesting article and lovely photos. The poke in Arkansas doesn’t look quite the same as far as the berries are concerned. Ours does not grow in clusters. I grew up doing my best to eat the berries and sometimes succeeding. My mother reports several times finding me with purple stains on my mouth and clothing. Poke root here was also used to make a bath to cure scabies and get rid of body lice. I understand it burns uncomfortably. Nice post.


    • Very interesting, Velda. Thanks.


    • Hello Velda,

      How did they make a bath using poke berries to cure scabies?


      • I’m sure far behind here. Been trying to learn how to post better on Word Press. Laugh. Anyway, to answer your question, I have this story from my son in law who saw this method. Heat water and do this in an outside tub on an open fire. You’ll soon see why. Now, you don’t use the berries, you use the root of the plant and you cut several of these large roots into the hot water. When it’s barely cool enough to not burn the skin from the heat, you immerse the entire body. And as he told it he said everyone readied for what would happen. It took a bit but before long the treatment began to take, burning the skin much more than the heat of the water. Soon the treated person had leaped from the tub and was running about hollering. Now, I’ve never seen this but my son in law swore to it and he was born and raised and still lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. He said the treated person was hard to catch and towel down but the scabies were gone.


    • Velda, how are the poke berries utilized to in a bath to cure scabies?


  3. Very nice post, Beth. I think our poke berries look a little different, too, here in Texas. My mother in law used to gather it and cook it, but I have never tasted it. She cooked it, drained it, washed it, and repeated until she’d drained the water three times before serving the greens. I think that’s the only thing she prepared that my husband wouldn’t eat. He said if it had to be treated that carefully to avoid poisoning people, he didn’t want any. I used poke weed as a poison in one of my books.


    • Thanks. I have also hesitated to eat the greens considering how careful one has to be. The root is both poisonous and potentially curative, all depending on the dose. I remember you used it. good choice. 🙂


  4. So interesting. Always love your pictures that go with the post too. I am going to read the link for treating cancer too.
    Sue B


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