One person's weed may be another's lunch entree

Memories are occasioned by the oddest things. A snatch of background music in a busy shopping mall may recall a years-ago special moment. A word or a phrase in conversation may resurrect a long-forgotten experience.

But pokeweed?

Going to and from the office each day, I pass a fallow field, and in the border, just off the roadway, are numerous large clumps of pokeweed, grown lush from all the recent rains. I see it elsewhere, sometimes in the edge of a yard where the mower or WeedEater haven't been, or around an old house place.

At this season, it's not an unattractive plant and, in fact, would look all right as background foliage in a flower border. But it grows rapidly and soon, when summer heat and humidity set in and the rains slack off, it becomes ungainly and raggedy and ugly, with stems turned reddish and crowned with a mass of evil-looking berries.

As well they are. The nomenclature notes that the entire plant contains a poisonous substance. Eating the plants/berries can result in purging, spasms, and sometimes convulsions, or even death due to paralysis of the respiratory organs.

Indians used the bright crimson berry juice for staining feathers, arrow shafts, and garments, and they and early settlers mixed the root in poultices and potions for skin diseases and rheumatism (whether any medical validity for this has ever been established, I haven't a clue).

Birds, apparently immune to the poison, eat the berries and thus spread seeds thither and yon. Animals, as best can be determined, don't eat any part of the plant.

And yet… people do. Some people. Poisonous though they may be at maturity, in the early spring, the young leaves are edible when cooked.

One of my childhood memories is of spring forays with my mother to look for “poke salad.” We'd go out into the fields adjoining our rural home, and she'd find the plants and gather “a mess” of the tender, young leaves, placing them in a cloth bag that I'd hold open. On the jaunt, to and fro, she'd point out wildflowers — bright yellow coreopsis, delicate blue phlox (sweet William), purple dogtooth violets, showy white oakleaf hydrangeas. Now and then, we'd stop to eat ripe “dewberries.”

Back at the house, she'd wash the poke leaves, mix them with turnip greens from the garden, and then cook the stuff in a cast iron pot, with chunks of “fatback” for seasoning (no cholesterol concerns in those days). After hours of simmering, she'd serve it, and its “potlikker,” with crusty cornbread made from corn she'd taken to the grist mill in town to be ground into meal. The bread was cooked in a well-seasoned black iron skillet that had been generously greased with lard.

I have no recollection of ever eating her greens-poke salad mix, but she relished the dish, and long after I was grown and gone and she was frail and old, a papery wisp of her younger self, she would still, in the spring, hanker for “a good mess of poke salad.”

To this day, I never see pokeweed that I do not remember her.

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