A commotion in the lawn caught my eye. There was a flash of gray and white in the pokeberry bush towering 8 feet high in our wild flower garden.
Red stalks shook and green leaves trembled. The mockingbird was tending his buffet, the first pokeberries turning black and succulent–ready to be snatched.
From now till fall, this native bush will keep flowering and forming berries. The mockingbird will be in charge of the harvest. We’ve even seen him in November gobbling freeze-dried remnants left on browned and slumping stalks.
The mockingbird is not the only pokeberry-lover in the family. On Halloween night 2007, a tiny boy stuffed into a too-tight alligator costume was more interested in exploring pokeberry bushes than he was in collecting candy in the neighborhood.
In fact, to Everett, fruit and berries have always been more seductive than candy. It was risky to allow him to investigate the juicy berries that night…but his mama kept a watchful eye. Entranced, he gathered beautiful berries in his little purple hand. None in the mouth, thank goodness, though they say pokeberry juice is the least poisonous part of the plant.
The part he didn’t like was the washcloth in his mama’s hand once we got inside…my heart melts every time I look at those uplifted alligator arms and the little tiptoe shoes—all begging for me to rescue his sticky purple self.
The pokeweed name comes from an Algonquian Indian word meaning a plant used to color feathers and horses. But my neighbor George calls it poke sallet, like so many others who grew up eating the very young leaves for a delicious spring dish of cooked greens. (Some say don’t pick them if they have grown higher than six inches off the ground. And be sure to cook them well, up to 3 times, pouring out the water every time and getting fresh.)You could even buy it canned, until about the year 2000 when workers were no longer willing to go out picking poke weed for the cannery.
You can be badly poisoned by eating mature poke weed, its seeds and roots. But the juice of its berries makes a lovely ink. Many a letter home during the Civil War was written by a soldier using a bird feather and poke berry juice. The words are still legible a century and a half later. As is the Declaration of Independence, its beautiful calligraphy in poke berry ink from the hand of Thomas Jefferson.
We don’t let the poke weed take over, though I think it would like to. Every year, though, we let one big one grow in a place of honor. For the grandkids and the mockingbirds. And, when I’m feeling daring, a little poke sallet savory with garlic and olive oil.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at [email protected].