My first experience with pokeweed was watching one sprout out of the side of my house.
I didn’t know what it was at first — it cropped up, seemingly overnight, in a tight space between the foundation and the heating oil tank. Since I was given to notions about lilac trees and beds of flowers at the time, and also didn’t want the foundation to crumble, I was tempted to pull it out. Something about the bright magenta-purple stems and lush leaves stayed my hand.
Nah, I thought. Let’s see where this goes.
Not long after, I was “rewarded” with hanging clusters of delicious-looking deep purple berries. I say “rewarded,” because pokeweed is also known as American nightshade and those shiny, tasty-seeming berries are super poisonous.
Well, unless you’re a bird. Or a raccoon. (As I discovered when Vladimir, the very rotund beast that lived above my friend’s garage, began leaving disturbingly recognizable pokeberry doots in front of the beer fridge.) While pokeweed berries are extremely deadly to most mammals, they’re a very important food source for plenty of other species. After other snacks have run their course, pokeberries are still hanging on.
Humans can eat the young shoots, but only when they are very young, and only after cooking them in two changes of water. I’ve also read that the berries may be edible too, but you have to remove the seeds first. Personally, I’m not really willing to try that particular experiment.
This past weekend, my partner and I stumbled on a pokeweed plant on a walk. Though mostly eaten, there were still a few deep purple berries left, and the intensely pink stems hadn’t yet lost their luster. That’s when I got the idea to write this post.
Pokeweed Magical Uses and Folklore
Pokeweed has a long history of use as a medicinal herb by people indigenous to its native range. That said, the effective dose is extremely small and the line between “medicine” and “poison” is thin. Isolated compounds in the plant — like Pokeweed Antiviral Protein — show a lot of promise as antiviral, anti-HIV, and even anti-cancer agents, but that’s another story.
The United States Declaration of Independence was written in ink made of pokeberries. Soldiers during the American Revolution frequently wrote letters in pokeberry juice, since it grew pretty much everywhere and made a very useful ink.
Pokeweed is variously associated with Mars or Uranus.
The Mars association makes sense, as various parts of the pokeweed (especially the dried berries) are used in spells for courage.
On the other hand, the Uranus association makes just as much sense. One of pokeweed’s medicinal properties is as a purgative (and oh, what a purgative). Shamans relied on this purging power as a kind of sympathetic magic, to expel evil spirits from afflicted people. It’s also used to break hexes and exorcise spirits/demons from a space. In other words, pokeweed purges evil or unwanted influences.
Crushing the berries creates a very powerful magical ink. Some people ferment them, others add vinegar, salt, or other natural preservatives and use it as-is. This ink is often used for hex breaking, and can also serve as a substitute for blood in a pinch (depending on the spell, of course).
You can also add the dried berries to sachets or spell jars for bravery or hex-breaking. I would avoid adding them to baths or incense, just in case, and definitely never add them to salves or teas. The juice of the plants can be absorbed through the skin, causing issues similar to poison ivy. It also contains compounds that can trigger mutations, so that’s neat.
Pokeweed is a striking-looking plant. The bright magenta stems, vibrant green leaves, and shiny clusters of dark berries are stunning. Like many poisonous plants, it holds a lot of power within it — but that power demands respect. Pokeweed has the ability to feed, heal, and harm, all depending on how it’s used.