Poke! That most delicious of wild greens was thick in a most unexpected area. I usually look for it in places where the soil has been recently disturbed or a building torn down, but this was happily growing right beside a little-traveled road. We made a note to come back for it later in the day. (And we remembered, an amazing thing in itself.)
We were working away when an SUV with a young woman at the wheel pulled up. "Yall picking ramps?" she asked.
"No, we're getting poke," my husband answered.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Well, it's a wild green, tastes a lot like spinach, only better," Larry explained.
The girl wrinkled her nose. "I think I'll pass," she said with a grin as she pulled away. We continued to pick,
ending up with two large, stuffed bags of gourmet greens.
That young woman doesn't know what she's missing. Prepared properly, poke is about as good as it gets when it comes to greens. BUT...
There are many websites with preparation instructions, including this one. There are also abundant warnings about poke's poisonous properties which should be well heeded before attempting to gather or cook this wild plant. I'm serious--this is not a plant to mess with if you don't know what you're doing.
I first learned about poke from a book by Euell Gibbons called Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Fortunately, Mr. Gibbons gave very careful instructions for preparing poke and I followed that advice then and now. I usually wash the plants, strip the leaves from the stems and boil in at least 3 waters before eating. Most poke recipes call for cooking it with bacon grease; I don't. I boil it in 3-5 waters, drain and add butter, salt and pepper. That's all. It's delicious.
There is some research now into poke's medicinal uses for such things as HIV and cancer. I hope the researchers find that this beautiful plant can be used for such purposes.
As children, we called poke "inkberry" and used its berries and a stem of grass to write secret messages. We knew even then that the berries were poisonous to eat and never were tempted to try them, thank goodness.
Native Americans believed that poke had magical properties and used it as a purge. They also used it as a dye for feathers, body paint and clothing. According to Dave's Garden, pokeberry ink was used to write the Declaration of Independence, but official government sites state that the document was written using iron gall ink, which I would think may or may not have been made using pokeberries for dye. It seems that the folklore about the Declaration's writing may have begun with a Wikipedia article since a lot of website quote verbatim the same language (which immediately makes their information suspect in my book), but I have not been able to find that source article. If you know of a site that can confirm this legend, I would like to know about it.
Another website details one blogger's experiment making her own pokeberry ink. I'm not quite ready to try that but it does sound interesting.
For now, I'll be content to gather poke where I find it, cook it carefully and enjoy its tender taste.
Ink and other uses can wait. Poke fresh scrambled eggs and iced sassafras tea--now that's a dinner.