The Vegetarian’s Puffer Fish

​Pokeweed is at its most beautiful in early autumn. It is also at its most toxic. From its lovely purple-black berries to the very tip of its stout, white taproot, the plant is poison.

Consequently, it may seem strange that pokeweed is avidly sought out as a wild edible. Songs have been written extolling pokeweed’s virtues. In fact, no less than Elvis Presley and Tom Jones covered Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” — a song about more than just eating poke salad. I only hope Annie was harvesting and cooking her greens in the early spring.

At the point when its shoots are only a few inches tall, pokeweed can be harvested and boiled to make a basic cooked vegetable. But as the plant matures, the three-inch shoots grow to a towering, treelike plant with spreading bright magenta stems. These you do not want to eat.

Birds seem to be immune to these toxins. In fact, pokeweed is an important food source for myriad songbirds, including cardinals, catbirds and mockingbirds. Smaller mammals like white-footed mice and even raccoons and opossums seem to suffer no ill effects from eating the luscious-looking berries. Even the very beautiful giant leopard moth’s bristly caterpillar feeds on this plant, probably sequestering the plant’s toxins for its own protection. Humans who eat any part of mature pokeweed may experience violent cramping, difficulty breathing, and eventual death by asphyxiation. To some, there’s a thrill in eating pokeweed — it’s the vegetable equivalent of fugu, the famously toxic Japanese blowfish.

The reality is not nearly so dramatic. American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is not as toxic as fugu, and reported deaths are generally more apocryphal than reality-based. Nonetheless, children and even adults should admire the beautiful berries from a distance. With so many far-less-risky wild edibles to try, reason sides with avoiding pokeweed as a meal altogether.

Pokeweed is instantly recognizable and very common throughout New York City. It prefers a fairly rich, well-drained soil, and it generally grows quickly where habitat has been disturbed. I have seen it growing most commonly at the edges of woodlands, but I have also seen plants growing happily in full sun in wet fields. Once you’ve located a site with pokeweed, it’s a good bet that the plants will be found there year after year. Pokeweed is a perennial, with long-lived roots. Its seeds can remain dormant in the soil for a decade or more, awaiting suitable conditions.

Though Tony Joe White’s song is as much about a “straight-razor-toting woman” as any native wild edible, “if some of y’all never been down south too much” (as far south as New York City, for example) you’ll find the handsome purple-stemmed pokeweed here in its September prime.