They call her a weed, they call her poisonous, they call her poke salad.
I think she is beautiful. She sits there, handed off as a discard by a visiting bird or insect. For those who donít know, Poke Salad (some people say salat) is a native plant that grows quite often as a weed here in the south. For a long time poke salad was a staple of the diet among the poorest people and there are still folks who eat it by choice now. As food it has some disadvantages, mainly, itís highly toxic and has to be rinsed, cooked, rinsed, cooked again and well drained in order to be safe enough to eat. I remember going with my parents to pick poke salad as a child. I donít remember how it tasted, but I donít think I liked it very much. I remember my mother boiling it for what seemed liked hours, then boiling it again. The knowledge that mature poke leaves, stems, roots, and berries are poisonous gives me pause. If I want cooked greens, Iíll stick to spinach, thanks.
The plant itself is actually very pretty with purple stalks, berries and large, bright green leaves. It produces long, wild cherry like sprays of white flowers followed by delightful berries that are green, then rose, and finally a deep purple-black. It dies each winter only to return in the spring.
As anyone who has ever tried to dig one out can tell, the roots are quite large and extensive. I have some in my backyard that are six feet tall.
People are perhaps more familiar with the popular 1969 song, ďPolk Salad Annie,Ē by Tony Joe White, than they are the plant itself. The song, however, gives a pretty good description of the plant - and why perhaps we started eating these beautiful, but potentially dangerous greens.
Tracey McMillian works in editorial design at the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 239.