Friday, 12 December 2008

The American Pokeweed, le Raisin d’Amérique, Phytolacca americana

Whilst in these momentous times the thoughts of thinking people turn to America, in the French countryside everywhere, the botanist is reminded of North America. Over the years numerous plants have entered Europe from that continent. Ubiquitously, the American ‘horseweed’ otherwise called the Canadian fleabane is a gardener’s ever present pain. It is a plant without any merit. Others are striking and beautiful. Of these the Thorn Apple (Datura) and The Pokeweed absolutely demand your attention. The former with enormous dangling white trumpets, seeds itself in many fields of maize and farmyards. The latter, the Pokeweed, is far less common but even more dramatic. It can grow three metres (ten feet) high. The red stems up to four centimetres thick, leaves as large as spinach and long dangling racemes of purple black berries look threatening. On a woodland path a few kilometres from home I passed plant after plant. When I searched the French national database of plant records in my department (the Lot, 46), it was not recorded. In the 1930’s it was described as common in countries bordering the Mediterranean. Is this plant spreading, I ask? Probably yes. Most probably they have seeded originally from plants grown for ornament.
The descriptions of this plant are trailed with lists of its medicinal virtues. It has been used, and is still recommended by herbalists, to treat rheumatism, headaches, insect bites, skin diseases and even breast cancer. Investigations have shown that it could inhibit infection by viruses. As you might guess the plant contains toxins. The berries are eaten by birds and it is most likely that the spread of the plant is largely through this route with their droppings. The berries taste a little like elderberries though slightly more astringent. In the USA birds gorge themselves on the berries, but a friend told me that chickens can be poisoned by them and for that reason the plant is recommended to be ripped out in some districts in France. If so, what about our blackbirds and thrushes? At one time the Portuguese used the berries to enhance the colour of port wine; one must hope that is now a discontinued practice! The berry juice makes quite a good ink and it quite likely that the Declaration of Independence was written with it. In spite of the poisonous properties of the plant, the young leaves can be eaten like spinach. A Frenchman travelling in Louisiana in 1791 writes that leaves were a favourite diet of the creoles and negro slaves, though it was also eaten agreeably by the ‘whites’. It was necessary to throw away the first dark ‘bouillon’ water. I have tried this. The raw leaves are a little bitter, but after discarding the cooking water several times the cooked leaves have the taste of spinach.. The original tribes – the caraibes – called it ‘lanmayan’ though the word ‘poke’ comes from the Red Indian Algonquin name.
I remind myself that the new American President did not have ancestors who tasted this plant. He is not laden with the historical baggage of slave ancestors.

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