The pokeweed plant – also known as the pokeberry, inkberry, or simply poke – is a common name for the genus phytolacca, which is a member of the phytolaccaceae family. These perennial herbs are native to areas of New Zealand, East Asia, and North and South America. Pokeweeds occasionally take on a tree-like appearance, and can grow between 1 to 10 feet in height. Their stems are fleshy and red or pink in hue; their leaves are alternate, crinkled, elliptical and smooth with a green upper surface, and pinkish green underbelly, which is lined with deep pink veins. They develop small, white-green blossoms which may form in an erect or nodding fashion upon the end of the stems. These flowers eventually form into round, green berries, which, as they mature, turn a deep shade of purple – almost resembling grapes.
The pokeweed plant, though mildly toxic if improperly handled, has long been an important part of many cultures. For example, many Native American tribes used this herb for a number of applications, such as pressing the juice from the berries to make both an ink and a dye; using several parts of the plant as a staple for both food and witchcraft rituals; and, most importantly, they created a number of medicinal remedies. Many of these remedies – such as creating salves to heal skin irritations, internal medicines to help treat arthritis, to purify the blood and to stop pain – are not commonly used today. However, the pokeweed plant is being investigated by independent researchers to find out if it truly does have an effect on both cancer and the HIV virus. One such study revealed that B43-PAP, a toxic material that is linked to an antibody, was found in the common pokeweed. This substance shows a good deal of promise, and, with further research, could very well lead to a cure for childhood leukemia. Researchers are also investigating the PAP, or pokeweed antiviral protein, as a way to prevent HIV from replicating within human cells.
Some species of the pokeweed plant are said to be symbols of pride in Argentina and Uruguay, other species are thought to represent freedom from oppression. As a gift, these plants are rarely given; however, they can make for a unique present for experienced gardeners who do not have any animals or children roaming around their plant plots.