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When we saw a pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) specimen yesterday on our way to the Mauer Park, we were surprised and excited at the same time. For us, pokeweed evokes the warm weather and charms of the American South where the plant has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. We certainly did not expect to see it in Prenzlauer Berg! Unfortunately we missed it at the peak of its fruit production but at least we were able to get some pictures of the last few berries clinging to their stems…

The culinary use of pokeweed remains controversial at best, although poke salad made from the boiled young shoots of the plant is considered a delicacy in some parts of the southern U.S. (and at one point could even be bought canned in grocery stores!). Still, there is little doubt that pokeweed contains powerful toxins which can cause severe poisoning when the plant is eaten raw. The berries grow in clusters and – with a little stretch of the imagination – might be said to resemble grapes (see the recent story of an elderly woman who thought this was the case). All in all, pokeweed can reward the experienced forager, yet is rather unforgiving to the unexperienced as ethnobotanist Peter Geil writes in his post about the plant.

Pokeweed is native to the US but also grows in Europe, and in Germany it is known as “Kermesbeere” (Kermes berry). The German Wikipedia entry simply states that the name Kermes is derived from the Persian word for red. But why would the Germans rely on the Persian word for red when they could simply call it “Rotbeere”? The article fails to mention an important link: namely, the Kermes scale insects which were used as the source of crimson red dyes for millenia (until cochineal from the New World replaced as a main source for the color red). Since pokeberries were often used to make red dyes in the past, the German name most likely refers to the Kermes insects which were used for the same purpose.

The American name of pokeweed is derived from the Native American word “pocan” (alternately spelled “pokan”) which means red dye or blood red. Apparently, the Declaration of Independence was written with fermented pokeweed and it was so often used to write letters that it is also known as inkberry or inkweed. If you’d like to make your own purple-colored ink, take a look at this article!

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