Poke Salad Annie-‘gator’s got your granny… from a song by Tony Joe White, 1968.
I found myself spreading manure near a fencerow bountiful with fall wild flowers. Yellow coriopsis and golden rod, the deep purple of ironweed is complimented by the more subtle hue of purple red top or broomsage. Clusters of white asters glow so brightly in the low sunlight they seem almost to be illuminated from within. Blue asters are starting to appear — the last flower to bloom — the harbinger of first frost. Tall pokeweeds dangle their purple berries from sturdy stalks and branches. The stalks are candy apple red in color — like a 1960s hot rod. Pokeberries — where I come from, they’re called inkberries.
At the Poison Control Center in Charleston, the phone is ringing off the hook. September is pokeberry-poisoning month with the incidents of ingestion starting around the southern coal fields and moving northward. This south to north wave of mild poisonings moves over the state yearly with the ripening of that most elegant and beautiful character in the late summer and fall fencerow, the pokeweed or inkberry plant.
When these berries are ripe, they look good enough to eat — at least several thousand toddlers seem to think so each year. The toxic quality of inkberries, though, is usually overrated. They certainly don’t taste as good as they look so a toddler is pretty unlikely to ingest more than a few. Moreover, the purple stain on the child’s hands and face leave little question as to what the toddler has eaten, so little time is wasted in diagnosis. Have lots of diapers ready though, you’re likely to need them. (If you have genuine need of information regarding pokeberry ingestion, call Poison Control at 800-222-1222 immediately as the information may have been updated.)
Poke, or Phytolacca Americana Linnaeus, (let’s just call them inkberries) is a perennial that sprouts anew from a large root every year and usually becomes quite a large plant, sometimes in excess of ten feet tall. We have a section of riverbank that I burn off each winter. The following spring the same inkberry bush comes back as it has for years. I leave it, and other bushes like it on the property to grow as ornamentals.
I understand that this may sound a little odd since the plant is generally considered to be a weed pest but anyone who is already familiar with this column knows that we’re grading on a serious curve here. Still, it is an undeniably beautiful plant, especially this time of year. Anyone who is familiar with this column is also aware that there is likely to be a nostalgic connection somewhere as well.
As children, we would mash the berries into ink but were never able to perfect a type of stylus that would deliver it onto paper, pedal cars or tractor hoods in a controlled manner. Giving up on this, we looked for ways to propel a ripe berry with enough force to cause it to splatter on impact. Our early experiments were quite primitive but we may well have been the Wright brothers of paintball technology.
I’ve learned from some of the old-timers that the young shoots of the inkberry plant are edible if cooked. According to all of my research sources, including the West Virginia Poison Control people, the stalk and especially the roots are poisonous. Trust me on this one — they are — though I wasn’t always aware of this.
I was in my teens, sitting in a fencerow reading Foxfire (or was it Alicia Bay Laurel?) deep in an adolescent dream world. Reasoning that the benevolent plant world certainly held no perils, I chanced to eat part of a small inkberry root. I don’t recommend replicating this experiment unless you want to see your summer toenails go by.
Computers never caught on with me so I still submit these stories to the publishers on paper. They’ve been after me to send these articles in electronically and I’m working on it. But I wonder — what if I sent them written in inkberry ink on poplar bark? It can be hard to overcome that desire, cultivated in childhood, to play with inkberries.