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Sustainahillbilly:

n., Any hill dweller who knows that the best path to the future is through the arts of the past mixed with the smallest possible dose of newfangled ingenuity.

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How to Get Excited About Poke Sallet (Native Options for Permaculture Nutrient Accumulators)

That may be the wordiest title I ever came up with on this blog.

The short of it is, “can poke sallet be highly desirable in the garden?” Poke sallet (as in pokeweed, pokeberries, polk salad, or any of the other myriad common names and spellings you want to label Phytolacca americana) is a plant native to the southeastern US.

Photo Caption: Poke sallet can reach 10′ in height. It’s true, I’ve seen it.

I was teaching a basic Organic Gardening/Permaculture class on Monday and one of the students asked me to justify the 7′ tall poke sallet plant behind the rain canopy we were sitting under. Understandable — this may be the most despised native plant in our area other than poison ivy.

I began explaining about its limited use (and surprising popularity) as an edible plant. Wildman Steve Brill calls it, “one of the best tasting vegetables on the planet” and internet recipes for this weed abound. Because of high toxicity (the raw greens have a reputation for killing livestock) the shoots have to be harvested very young, around 7″ high, and boiled multiple times to remove the water-soluble phytotoxins.

Using it as a successful wild songbird attractant is tempered by another caveat — deep purple seedy poop all over the car in your driveway. Don’t worry, some of the birds will miss your vehicle and the seeds will just sprout in your hedges and garden beds.

How about it’s just pretty? At the time of this posting you can buy named varieties like P. americana ‘Silberstein’, 50 people on the popular Dave’s Garden website are looking to trade some, and variations of P. americana are intentionally showing up in European yards… even helping to win awards in their prestigious garden shows!

Photo Credit: Wild Pantry.com

Okay, unless you were born in the south and are the type of person who misses Allen’s Canned Poke Salet, you probably aren’t convinced.

But poke sallet may have another use in the garden — as a fertilizer!

If you aren’t familiar with nutrient accumulators, the idea is that you plant your own fertilizer. For example, comfrey is touted for its long tap root, perennial durability, and ability to absorb nutrients that shallow-rooted plants don’t reach. The comfrey leaves are then harvested throughout the season and used as fertilizer. Comfrey’s roots even break up compacted soil!

Perhaps poke sallet can be used the same way.

Photo Caption: Nutrient analysis for poke sallet exists for the young, 7″ shoots that have been boiled repeatedly. I am curious what minerals and nutrients are available in thick, older poke sallet stalks, leaves, and flowers.

Whether you are happy about these features or not, poke sallet certainly is hardy, dependable, has a chunky root system (ever tried to dig up a big poke plant?), seeds readily in impoverished soils, and produces biomass quickly — look how thick the stems are! Having cut this plant down repeatedly, I know it just spikes back up again (blink and you’ll miss it).

I did some research and found that there doesn’t seem to be many studies on the nutrient content of mature specimens. A constituent analysis of young shoots (the part you eat) from Wikipedia provided the following information:

Nutritional Information per 100 grams dry weight of shoots:[3]

  • Protein: 31g; Fat: 4.8g; Carbohydrate: 44g; Fibre: 0g; Ash: 20.2g;
  • Minerals – Calcium: 631 mg; Phosphorus: 524 mg; Iron: 20.2 mg; Magnesium: 0 mg; Sodium: 0 mg; Potassium: 0 mg; Zinc: 0 mg;
  • Vitamins – A: 62 mg; Thiamine (B1): 0.95 mg; Riboflavin (B2): 3.93 mg; Niacin: 14.3 mg; B6: 0 mg; C: 1619 mg.

It’s likely that an analysis of older plant material would yield a better nutritional analysis, but even from this data I am intrigued at poke sallet’s potential as a fertility source for phosphorus, calcium and iron. It has enough protein to make me wonder if it is a significant source of nitrogen as well. At the very least it could be useful for trapping nutrients before they leach away and then releasing them as a decaying mulch.

Photo Caption: Poke sallet flowers are small and fleshy. I plan to cut some of the maturing green berry stalks, dry them, and test if the seeds were already viable before they reach their purple stage. If they don’t grow, I’ll know I can chop my plants to the ground during the green seed stage without risking additional poke plants where I don’t want them.

Since the “best” time to harvest nutrient accumulators is right before they make fruit, a gardener could avoid ever having messy purple berries for the birds to paint on their car…

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons — You won’t need to let your poke sallet get to this stage in your garden.

Does anyone have experience in using this plant as a permaculture nutrient accumulator? Or on how to get a nutritional analysis of the mature plant material?

If you want to try using your poke sallet to improve your garden soil, simply wait until the plant reaches the flowering stage and chop it about 2″ from the soil level. You can lay it flat on the soil (it will double as a mulch) or put it in your compost. Be sure to keep it away from livestock.

There’s a forum discussion about this post at Permies.com if you’d like to read more. Here’s another thread from someone who had the same idea 6 months ago. There is also a thought-provoking discussion on Reddit.

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10 comments to How to Get Excited About Poke Sallet (Native Options for Permaculture Nutrient Accumulators)

  • We were shocked when we were visiting friends in Texas and we saw poke cultivated in a woman’s garden. She couldn’t say enough about it. When I was a kid, all I knew was it was poisonous and you rip it out as soon as you see it. I’m still probably not going to eat it any time soon, but I am interested in its value as fertilizer.

    • Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet

      I think the first time I was glancing through a glossy British magazine’s major garden show photos and saw a whole stand of mature, fuschia-stemmed poke towering over the fancy stands of fashionable plants my eyes bugged out like a cartoon character.

      I say “the first time” because this has actually happened more than once now.

      My husband and I are also repeatedly puzzled by raves about this plant’s superior flavor since all recipes say to cook it in bacon fat. Well… yeah!

      But having grown it (not on purpose) for 15+ years, I’m certain it will work out great as a mulch/fertilizer. So so so excited! (I admit to thinking it is pretty — plus some great nostalgic memories of drawing with the berries as a kid. As an adult I was geekily thrilled to learn it’s what the framers used to write the Declaration of Independence).
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Get Excited About Poke Sallet (Native Options for Permaculture Nutrient Accumulators)

  • Many thanks for the information. Poke is, to us Brits at least , an exotic and beautiful plant. It occasionally naturalizes in the far south west, where I live. I have seen some pretty enormous specimens in gardens round here. Seems like it’s the plant equivalent of puffer fish, which sort of endears it to me. I have some seedlings growing.

  • PlantPostings
    Twitter: plantpostings

    OK, first of all the messy purple berries are beautiful! I’m sure they’re bothersome and they stain, but they’re pleasant to look at. Second, yes, your idea of using the plant as organic fertilizer makes sense. I could use it on my veggie garden right now! Great post!

  • Add me to the list of people who think pokeweed is pretty… and photogenic.
    Watching the mockingbirds getting drunk on the fruit is cool also. What do I care about a bit of bird poop on my pick-up truck?
    The nutrient accumulator aspect hadn’t really occurred to me, although… Any extra are added to my compost…
    As far as noshing… Ima stick to chenopodium.
    stone´s last blog post ..What does pollinator mean to you?

  • The only experience I have with this is TRYING to pull it up with the other weeds every year – and it grows fast! Now I know more – a big thank you, and maybe I will give it a try for fertilizer and let you know.
    -Ray

  • Ha! I grew up in Virginia by the Blue Ridge Parkway, and those just bring me back! So common but I had completely forgotten about them. What I remember now is they could really really really stain your clothing and hands.
    Jess´s last blog post ..Summer Hate

  • I like the messy berries. They are really attractive. As per the birds, I have a mulberry behind me that has the exact same problem, birds paint everything with them.
    Donna´s last blog post ..Bat House in the Clouds

  • I have used Pokeberry over the last two years. Grows so fast you can shade a whole patio very quickly, looks beautiful, good nutrient accumulator and is a good source of calcium and phosphorus, attracts birds, provides quick nursery structure in open field gardens, growing several feet in one year. It is also a perennial. That fact alone makes it a great supplement to any garden. Grows like crazy here in northern Virginia. If one is careful with this plant (sometimes toxic to people and animals and messy, stains)there are a tremendous amount of good, inetgrated reasons to allow some pokeberry to thrive. Its place in the edible forest would just under the canopy of fruit trees, about 3 levels down, in with the bushes, rasberriy and blackberry.

  • [...] brings me to the native, but unpopular, poke sallet in the above photo. Last year I wrote about it as a potential permaculture superstar. Sometimes we need the jolt of seeing a hated plant in [...]

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