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.
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!
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.
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:
- 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.
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…
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.