By Donna di Natale
Donna di Natale
A pokeberry plant has been growing in my backyard for at least three years now. The first year, we didn’t know what it was and tried to pull it. We obviously weren’t very successful, because it came up again last year, bigger than ever. We’ve since learned that the plant has a big taproot that is nearly impossible to kill.
Last year, we let it grow to see what it would become. A small tree was the result, with dangling bunches of deep purple berries. I checked my reference books and found that it was a pokeberry bush. I also read that the berries were poisonous, so I cut it down and threw it away. We didn’t even put it in the compost pile.
This year, the plant popped out of the ground again in early spring. Before trying to get rid of it, I decided to do a little research and learned that the berries can be used for dying fibers such as wool and cotton. That fact alone saved the plant from death by Roundup.
American pokeberry, Phytolacca americana to those serious gardeners out there, is an herbaceous perennial native to North America. It can grow up to 10 feet high, but 6 feet is fairly typical. It has several common names: Virginia poke, American nightshade, potherb, pigeon berry, pokeweed and red ink plant, just to name a few. There are rumors on the Internet that the U.S. Constitution was written with pokeberry ink. While that is probably not true, it is true that pokeberry ink was used by Civil War soldiers to write notes in their diaries. Pokeberries and a stick were all that some had.
The simple leaves grow on stems that start out green, but turn a lovely shade of deep pink as they grow and mature. In spring, the plant has small white flowers that attract butterflies. The white flowers turn into green berries that ripen to a deep purple. If you look closely at the bottom of a berry, it has a small indentation, as if someone had poked it. Songbirds especially enjoy the berries and are immune to the toxin. If a pokeberry bush suddenly appears in your yard, it was probably “planted” there by a bird.
As I said, the berries are poisonous to humans and other mammals. Farmers view the plant as a nuisance, but the plant has some redeeming qualities. The leaves are said to be edible when “boiled twice or thrice,” depending on the source. I’m sorry, but any plant that needs to be boiled that much to get rid of the poison just isn’t worth the trouble or risk. However, I know at least one person who ate it as a child and is still alive today.
The toxins induce vomiting and diarrhea, among other unpleasant maladies, which may explain why American Indians used the berries as an emetic and laxative. If you read further about all the ailments it supposedly has been used for in the past, it will make you wonder whether people died from the ailment or the treatment.
Pokeberry, as with some other poisons, used in small, carefully prepared quantities, can be a helpful medicinal. According to the American Cancer Society website, proponents of pokeberries claim it cures everything from arthritis to hemorrhoids. It also says that the protein in pokeberries (pokeweed antiviral antibody, or PAP) is being researched as a treatment for some cancers.
But that is not why I’m writing about pokeberries today. I’m writing because next weekend my friend Jackie and I are going to do some experiments of our own. We are going to try dying wool and cotton fabrics using pokeberries, with white vinegar as a mordant. Our experiments won’t be very scientific, but we have done our research and have decided on a few tests. I want to dye my wool a nice pink and a deep red. To do this, we need to simmer the fabric in the dye pot for varying lengths of time. We’ll repeat this experiment with cotton, too.
Supposedly, if you let the dye pot boil, the fabric will turn brown instead of pink or red. So when we’ve achieved the pink or red that we want, we’ll turn the heat up and see whether this is true. Check back again next week to see the results. Will I have pink wool for floral appliqué? I certainly hope so.
If you have any experience dying with pokeberries, I would love to hear from you.
Donna di Natale is an author and editor for Kansas City Star Quilts. She writes every Wednesday.