Phytolacca decandra (also Phytolacca americana) is known by many names — American pokeweed, pokeberry, poke root, inkberry, poke, cancer root, inkweed, and pigeonberry. Native to North America, especially along the eastern part of the United States, pokeweed can be found growing nearly anywhere, from wooded areas and fields to home sites and roadsides. For this reason, the weed has earned itself the reputation of a nuisance in and around many landscapes. Despite this, pokeweed has been extremely useful to various cultures.
The dark purple berries were once popular for making ink. In fact, the names inkberry and inkweed were used in reference to this. The berries were also commonly used as food coloring. The entire plant is considered poisonous before cooking, and many experts recommend not consuming cooked pokeweed, as the toxins may remain. Even though this is true,the young shoots are sometimes boiled and eaten like greens or used in poke salad. More common, however, was its use for medicinal purposes.
Pokeweed was often converted into various forms to treat an array of symptoms. These preparations included everything from extract teas and tonics to tinctures, poultices, and powders. For example, the cooked berries or tea extract were commonly ingested as a remedy for rheumatism. The leaves and root of Phytolacca decandra were often mashed into a poultice and applied externally to relieve sprains, bruising, and joint inflammation.
As far back as the late 1800s, the powder made from this plant has been employed by homeopathic practitioners as a choice remedy for treating cancer and lymphatic conditions, such as with breast infections. It worked well with lumps and growths too. Glandular conditions associated with swollen tonsils or sore throats, were also treated with remedies of Phytolacca decandra. It is thought that the plant helps relieve pain and inflammation, and promotes healing. Pokeweed seems to work well on fibrous tissues and muscles.
Additional remedies of the plant include various skin-related issues such as eczema and psoriasis. Many Native Americans also prescribed Phytolacca decandra to stimulate the heart. In some areas, the plant was thought to drive away evil spirits. Thus, it would be given to those who were deemed to be possessed, triggering these patients to vomit and ultimately cleanse their bodies.
Phytolacca decandra should never be used without the advice of a qualified herbal or homeopathic practitioner. Ingestion of or excessive amounts of the plant’s extract have been known to cause various problems. These may include nausea, vomiting, cramping and gastric upset, weakness, extreme thirst, and skin irritation. In addition, pregnant women and children should never use remedies containing any form of this plant.