Sung by Elvis Presley
Lyrics by Tony Joe White

If some of ya'll never been down South too much...
I'm gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you'll understand
What I'm talking about
Down there they got a plant
That grows out in the woods,
And in the field
Grows up the long side on the rocks
In the trees
And everybody calls it polk salad
That's polk salad
And I used to know a girl lived down there
She'd go out in the evenings
And pick herself a little bit of it
And she carried it home
And cook it for supper
Cause that's about all they had to eat
But they did all right

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana and Phytolacca rigida) is also known as poke or polk and Inkberry. It is a native American plant, most common in the mid to southeast. It is a perennial weed or wildflower, growing up to 6 or more feet if undisturbed. It bears tiny whitish-green, 5 petaled flowers on racemes. The flowers often turn to dark purple berries on the most medial portion while the raceme is still expanding and blooming on the distal end. These purple berries stain so well that polkweed is well known as a dye plant. Speciman plants are grown in the National Arboreutum’s herb garden in the dye plant section. Leaves vary in size, as the plant seems to be constantly growing. At the tip of the new growth there may be tiny little leaves and the oldest leaves may be up to 9 inches in length.

Kids love this plant for its messy qualities. Colonials used the berry’s juice as ink. The plant is known to be poisonous in all parts. However, like many other pot herbs, poke also is eaten as a cooked green in early spring in the delicate balancing act between scurvy and death by poison. The water soluable toxins known as saponins are reduced by the common convention of twice boiling with the first water being discarded. The term Polk Sallet is often used and can mistakenly be taken to mean SALAD when in reality “sallet” is an old English term for cooked greens. Polkweed should never be eaten raw nor should any part other than the tender new leaves be eaten even if cooked. 1.

Cherokees Indians are said to have used the plant to stun and catch fish. Apparently the fish remained edible3, 4, 5. There is a Polk County in North Carolina (traditional home of the Cherokee tribe).

Birds love the seed, as they do the seed of poison ivy so there may be a historical medicinal use by association, as the plants are commonly found near each other.

Poke is difficult to grow where desired, at least by seed. The plant produces huge quantities of seed which are mostly digested by the birds which eat them but a few survive. Those that do survive the trip go on to germinate. Seeds not “treated” by the elevated temperature and acidic conditions of the avian alimentary canal seldom germinate. Consequently polk plants poke up in all sorts of places, especially under bird perches. 6

I think the plant is very attractive. I like to use the berries in flower arrangements. Now that my kids are grown (and not getting into every poison purple thing in arm’s reach) I encourage pokeweed to grow in my yard. I used to weed them out before I realized how valuable they are and that they do not spread like wildfire. They do get some massive roots over time! They look lovely with Echinacea (purple coneflower), black eyed susans, golden-rod and Joe-Pye weed in July/August.

1 http://2bnthewild.com/plants/H171.htm#class
2 http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=PHAM4
3 www.primitiveways.com/fish_poison.html
4 www.uqac.uquebec.ca/PleinAir/fishipo1.htm
5 http://www.survival.com/fish.htm
6 http://www.motherearthnews.com/menarch/archive/issues/008/008-048-01.htm
7 http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph24.htm
8 http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Pokeweed.html
9 http://www.rockytopgen.com/polksalad/index.html (the Tennessee Polk Salad Association) 10 http://nadiasyard.com/our-native-plants/american-pokeweed/

Thanks to Chase and his grandpa for the idea for this node!
Thanks to WonkoDSane for the reminder about the song and this pronunciation quite:

Poke"weed` (?), n. Bot.

See Poke, the plant.


© Webster 1913.

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