Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


By Hugh Murphy

Pokeweed is a wild, leafy plant found across wide regions of North America.  Its name comes from an adaptation of the American Indian word, ‘pocan’ (Davidson, 615).  Other common names include; garget, skoke, bear’s grape, pigeon berry, nightshade, crowberry and cancer root (Mitich, 887).  It has long been used as a source of food and medicine by indigenous peoples of North America.    


Young pokeweed is light green in color, with large, spear-shaped leaves branching off from a central stalk.  This stalk turns to a dark purple as the plant reaches adulthood.  Some varieties of pokeweed can reach heights of up to eleven feet.  Seeds are contained within clusters of shiny purple berries (Mitich, 887). 


Young pokeweed leaves can be used as salad stock, or stewed like collard greens.  The green shoots can be boiled and eaten like asparagus or added to salad as a vegetable (Davidson, 615).  Pokeweed berries, roots and mature stalks, however, are highly poisonous to humans and some animals.  The berries are a favorite food among birds, which helps to spread the seeds (Mitich, 888).     

Early accounts of North American pokeweed suggest that the plant was also used for medicinal purposes.  The Delaware Indians were likely the first to prescribe pokeweed in medicine, using it as a cardiac stimulant (Mitich, 888).  Tribes in Virginia used the plant as a poultice for cancer and as a cure for rheumatism (Mitich, 888).  Indians of the Rocky Mountain region used pokeweed to treat epilepsy, anxiety and neurological disorders.  The Pah-Utes fermented berries in water to make a narcotic tea (Scully, 217).  Today, pokeweed proteins have shown promise in treating certain types of cancer and inhibiting HIV cell replication (Mitich, 889).



Mature Pokeweed

Young pokeweed'S/Plant%20Web%20Images/PokeShoots.jpg


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mihesuah, Devon Abbott. Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness. Nebraska:  University of Nebraska Press. 2005.

Mitich, Larry W.  “Common Pokeweed.” Weed Technology, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1994), pp. 887-890. Published by: Weed Science Society of America and Allen Press.

Scully, Virginia. A Treasury of American Indian Herbs – Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine.  New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970.