Tuesday, December 7, 2010


No, I don't mean that physically. But if you do want to poke someone right now, feel free. I give you permission to annoy someone today.

I'm actually referring to the Poke plant, Phytolacca spp. This beautiful plant is coming up everywhere! Literally and figuratively. A couple months ago I was out in the back pasture with my grandma, and she asks me what this weed with seductive purple berries is. I tried identifying it, but couldn't. I was baffled. At school during the past year I always parked in the same spot. The spot is right in front of a thriving Poke plant, and I liked to see it's stature and charisma as I drove up in the morning. A few weeks after visiting my grandma, I was pulling into "my spot", and smacked my forehead. Duh! The "weed" at grandma's is a poke!

Poke kept coming up in class the last few weeks because of some experimenting with the berries (which I'll explain!). And Mary, at Herban Lifesyle, asks,
"I have poke weed growing in abundance, and I love the purple berries. I have read mixed reviews on the safety and uses of this "weed." What information can you give me on the harvesting and use of its various parts?"

My short answer is the same as late great Michael Moore, USE WITH CARE.

The plant is apparently very toxic, both to humans and animals. Decreased blood pressure and heart palpitations, nausea and headache are the common symptoms I heard of. That said, Poke has a long history of medical use in Europe. The entry in King's American Dispensatory is quite lengthy, but very comprehensive. I've heard/read that the toxins are limited to the seeds, and if juiced properly, the berries may be used in cooking. I've also heard that when taken in small quantities, the berries (including seed) can help open the mind.

None of this has convinced me to experiment with Poke. Some of my fellow students did, however. Some used the berries for dye, which turned the fabric a beautiful red. One might be concerned with if the toxin is getting in through your skin. On the other hand, a couple friends used the berry juice as face paint! And some tried part or a whole berry, just to see how it affected them. The results ranged from feeling nothing, to some nausea. But nothing dramatic.

I would trust the entry in King's Dispensatory as the authority if you do choose to use any parts of the plant, Mary. Search "phytolacca" in Michael Moore's formulas and you'll get his recommended dosages.

So again I reiterate, if you do choose to use this plant, in cooking, medicinally, or for dye, USE WITH CARE. But it sure is lovely!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ask Me A Question!

Hey y'all!

I'm no longer writing you from the beautiful hills and vales of Sonoma County, but from the vast farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley. What a whirlwind the last couple months have been! And as the song (almost) goes "I left my heart in north bay San Francisco". ;)

But I'm excited to get farmin' and herbin' in The Valley. It's going to take some time (and $) to get going, so in the mean time I'm looking for a "normal job". And in the mean time on this blog, I thought I'd ask you for your herb, botany, alt medicine, hippie, etc questions!

This is inspired by my friend Vivian who asked in a comment (a long time ago, sorry I'm so slow!):
"I'm curious. What are milk thistle good for?, because there are a ton at my parent's cabin. All they do it poke us!"

Milk thistle is good for your liver. The seeds in particular are the medicinal part of the plant. The leaves are nutritious; you could cut off the barbs and put them in your salads, sandwiches, ... But it's really the seeds you want.
Milk thistle has prominent white venation on the leaves. If you're finding wild thistles with white variegated leaves, you'll want to make sure what you've found is Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum), not Italian Thistle. On Italian Thistle the venation is lighter. Milk Thistle flowers are bigger (2-6cm vs 1-2cm), and the stems on Italian Thistle have spines, but Milk Thistle does not. Italian Thistle seeds are not medicinal.

Since Viv's question was about the thistle she found growing wild, I'd suggest collecting the seeds (careful for those barbs!), by cutting the dieing, but not dead, flowers with a foot or so of stalk. Put them upside down in a paper bag, then let them dry. Many of the seeds will fall out to the bottom of the bag. This will save you some time (and some fingers!). After that you can pull out the rest of the seeds from the flower head by hand. Then just grind the seeds up, and sprinkle them on your food like pepper! What an easy way to get your medicine ;)