My husband Roberto and I must have planted about a gazillion different plants, all purchased & trucked in -- trip-by-trip -- in our battered green F150. All the way from Miami to the Lake Okeechobee area, where we have a modest one acre of sandy, bone-dry Big Cypress prairieland.
Within the first month, a freeze shriveled the tropical plants, then a humongous drought started hammering away at the remaining plants. "Well, what died this time?” was our first thought as we pulled up to the front porch each week.
But that damn pokeweed just grew and grew - with wonderfully luxuriant leaves, an inverted triangle of foliage, all geometrically balanced, with bright red-purple stems and finally the hordes of blue-black berries pendulously hanging in great quantity.
Strangely, pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) was left out of most books I have on Florida native plants, perhaps because of its all-too-commonness, its weedy character.
I love weeds. I had forgotten how much I truly love weeds. It probably started when I learned that you can eat dandelions and even make wine out of them. Then I began experimenting with weeds as dyes for yarns. I discovered that little weeds are great salad greens.
I also began to identify with weeds on a spiritual level. Natural things that are not glamorous or elitist. Not high church, but church of the common folk.
And "common" really describes pokeweed. Pokeweed is an herbaceous perennial that can grow up to 9 feet tall and has a stem and taproot that can become 6 inches in diameter. The word “poke” comes from the Algonquian Indian word "pakon" or "puccoon," meaning a dye or stain. The plant, though native to Florida and most areas of the United States, can be a pest and is considered invasive. The taproot, seeds and other parts are poisonous.
Pokeweed and other related species occur in many places in the Americas. D. Austin has an extensive list of its occurrences in the U.S. (pg.507-508): chou-gras (fat cabbage) in Cajun Louisiana; many names and uses among Native Americans (Creek, Cherokee, Mikasuki, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Biloxi). Pokeweed pollen is found among pre-Colombian Glades sites, such as Fort Center in the Okeechobee Basin (William H. Sears, 127).
Similar species are found in Belize, Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Colombia - just to mention a few countries (see note below). Usually these plants are used both medicinally and as a cooked green, such as spinach or collards.
The Pokeweed has a few interesting relatives, including the Petiveria alliacea (see information below), better known in Latin American as anamú, one of the strongest herbs in the healer's basket (over 60 reputed uses). So read on for a visit with "Plants without Borders" and meet Dr. Anamú from the Dominican Republic.
NOTE: Phytolacca iconsandra, is found in Belize (called calaloo and wild calabash), and among the Zapotec of Oaxaca of Mexico. P. iconsandra is called Choyllo-choyllo in Bolivia, Bledo carbnero in Cuba, Moco de pavo in the Dominican Republic, Juan de Vargas in Puerto Rico, Jaboncillo in Costa Rica (the list goes on - see Nomenclature Polyglotte des plantes haïtiennes et tropicales, 1971, or A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America, 1995 ). Another related species, Phytolacca rivinoides is found in Belize (coch-otón) and Jamaica (jocato) (Herbal Plants of Jamaica, 51). In Suriname, P. rivinoides is called Gogomago and Blakawiwirie.
The Arts at St. Johns has many wonderful arts and culture events. If you would like to receive occasional emails about upcoming events and opportunities, just click here to subscribe to our email list.