Life and Death in the Parking Lot

Look! There. Lurking in the corner of the restaurant parking lot. Half-hidden among the foliage. A tall, gangly, strange-looking character.

About six feet tall. Skinny. Big floppy leaves.

And long clusters of deep-colored berries, like dangling chains of rubies.

I’ve seen this odd-looking plant before, not many times, though. Although it’s a native plant, it’s not too common around here. Pokeweed. I love that name. Sounds so slow and friendly.

When I got home, I googled around on the web to find out more about the parking lot weed. Wow, google pokeweed, get 434,000 possibilities. All kinds of websites have something to say about it. Hm, edible, it seems. Culinary websites allow as how folks, especially in the south, used to gather the spring shoots, and eat them for a life-giving burst of vitamins in the earliest days of spring. Poke greens, well-boiled (change the water twice, all the recipes agree) are a classic Southern dish.

But wait. Wait. All the botanical websites agree, pokeweed is poisonous. Toddlers have died from eating those gorgeously purple, tempting berries. Turns out the reason you change the water when you boil the leaves is to dispose of the toxins that boil out as you cook it. Most of the nutrients boil out, too, alas.

So is pokeweed a bad plant?

Most of the gardening websites are quite hysterical about it–use words like bane, threat and nuisance. It can spread in the garden, a nasty weed. They recommend hearty doses of herbicide to kill any infestation. But then one site hesitantly mentions that it maybe might be sort of good for birds.

Hm. More research needed. Birding websites. Turns out pokeweed is a native American plant, and the berries are a source of high-quality nutrition for birds. Cardinals, mockingbirds, catbirds, phoebes, mourning doves, waxwings, etc. A big pokeweed like this parking lot lurker could really make a difference for bird life, in this barren suburban environment. Good plant.

But, not so fast. Medical websites warn that all parts of the plant (especially the root) if ingested contain powerful chemicals that can cause “nausea, diarrhea, protracted vomiting, hypotension, convulsions, dyspnea, and death.” I’m not sure what dyspnea is, but it doesn’t sound good. This is a bad plant.

But. Maybe it’s not as simple as good/bad. Life/death. That which is lethal in large amounts can sometimes be life-giving in small amounts. Pick up any bottle of pills—if you pour all of them down your throat, they could kill you. But one a day could save your life.

Pokeweed has been used medicinally by Native American and other traditional cultures for centuries, for a host of ailments from constipation to cancer. Ancient wisdom is often built on a strong bedrock of science. Those red-purple berries and floppy leaves contain powerful chemicals, all right. One of them is called PAP, for pokeweed antiviral protein. (Really.) It’s currently being researched as a possible weapon against cancer. AIDS researchers are using it to try to inhibit the replication of the HIV virus in human cells.

The American Cancer Society says that PAP has “anti-tumor effects in mice and laboratory studies…[and has] shown action against viruses such as herpes and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Clinical trials have not yet determined whether these effects apply to humans.”

The Sloan-Kettering Cancer center website cautions that “No study supports the use of pokeweed for any proposed claim.” PAP is probably not the holy grail, the wonder drug that cures AIDS or cancer.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t get out the herbicide just yet…

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About unmowed

I'm a writer and a botanist who loves the weirdly weedy places of the world.
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