Herbal Adventures with Susun S Weed
Poke (Phytolacca americana)
© 2002 Susun S. Weed
read other Herbal Adventures part 1, part 2 , part 3 , part 4
as seen printed in www.sagewoman.com
As you no may recall, I am astride a horse, riding through Provence, singing to the scotch broom, inhaling lavender, rosemary and thyme, drinking teas of elder blossom or linden flowers, swigging St. Joan's wort tincture, rubbing myself with Joan's wort oil, spraying myself with yarrow tincture, and hoarding my osha root in case there's an emergency. What else is in my herbal first-aid kit? With the abundance of herbs around me, what else did I bring to France? What herbs do I carry with me whenever I leave home?
Of the herbs in my herbal first-aid kit, osha is the rarest one I use. (See last issue.) But poke is the most dangerous, and comfrey the most controversial.
Poke plants (Phytolacca americana) are large, showy perennials. Living as they do year after year, they accumulate a huge, spindle-shaped, root. In southern Virginia I once met an ancient poke plant whose root top was over two feet from one side to the other. The flashy, hot pink stalks, leaves that are big and smooth all over (edges too), and bunches of nearly black berries held at eye level make this weed easy to recognize and remember. All parts of the poke plant can be used: some for medicine, and some for food.
Yes, even though poke is considered a violent poisoner, people eat it. The leaves, cooked in several changes of water, are a specialty green below the Mason-Dixon line, where supermarkets carry canned poke sallet (or sallat). To make your own sallet: Collect very young poke greens as early as possible in the season (late April to mid-May in the Catskills, as early as February in Georgia). Pour boiling water over the greens and boil them one minute. Discard water. Add more boiling water and again boil the greens for one minute. Discard the water. Do this at least twice more before attempting to eat the greens. If you fail to leach out the poisonous compounds -- or are foolish enough to attempt to eat poke leaves raw -- your mouth and throat will feel like they are on fire, you may vomit, and you will no doubt have copious diarrhea.
Magenta is the color of crushed poke berries. Good for body paint, and great for ink. (Am monia, used carefully, is the fixative.) The small seeds in the berries are very poisonous. Lucky for us, they are too hard for our teeth to break open. I have had pokeberry jam (no worse than blackberry jam, that is, seedy) and pokeberry jelly (ah, no seeds) and pokeberry pie (seedy). Since children are attracted to poke plants and since the berries leave telltale stains on children's mouths and since many parents are frightened if their child eats anything wild, and since medical personnel know little about poke except that it is poisonous, lots of kids have their stomach pumped (for no good reason, since they can't break open the seeds either) after investigating the taste of poke berries..
I keep a supply of dried poke berries on hand. One or two berries, swallowed whole with water, as if you were taking a pill, relieves the pain of rheumatism and arthritis. I always caution students to experiment with poke in the safety of their homes first. What is poisonous in large dose is often psychoactive in smaller doses, and such is certainly the case with poke. You may find yourself seeing the world a little differently after ingesting poke berries. . . nothing so bla tant as hallucinations, but definitely an altered state. I pick and dry fresh poke berries each year as they are especially easily infected with insect larva and thus don't keep for a long time.
But the part of the poke plant that I carry with me in my first-aid kit is the root, tincture of the fresh root, to be exact. That's where the poisons are the most concentrated. Need I say great care in needed in wise use of this remedy? I dig only one poke root every decade or so, for the dose I use is minuscule. I choose a root that is at least three years old (the standard for digging any perennial root), rinse the soil from it, chop it coarsely, and tincture it for a minimum of six weeks in one hundred proof vodka. (No, eighty proof won't work. And, yes, it must be a fresh root, as drying seems to remove the active properties.)
I take a dose of one drop -- yes, only one drop -- once or twice a day to kick my immune system into high gear. Poke root tincture contains compounds that can harm the kidneys if it is taken continuously. I reserve its use for emergencies and do not consider it especially helpful to the immune system. Isn't it well named? It pokes the immune system and speeds up pokey lym phatic drainage. I have known a single drop to reverse chronic infections that have simmered for years, getting more and more resistant to drugs. Of course, poke root tincture, is used by those with cancer. Sometimes with astonishing results. (See Breast Cancer? Breast Health! the Wise Woman Way for lots more information on using poke to counter cancer.)
My friend, Isla Burgess, director of the Waikato Center for Herbal Studies, finds poke root tincture a powerful ally for women dealing with fibroids or endometriosis. She used it herself with excellent results. Her doses were larger, but built up gradually over a period of days, as I suggest for those dancing with cancer. In extreme situations, an individual may be able to use doses of 15 drops a day. I know of some instances where doses of 30 drops a day were used, but this usually creates unwelcome side effects.
I carry poke with me as insurance -- on the off chance that I may be exposed in my travels to some new and potentially deadly bug. Had I been in Bejing when SARS broke out, I would have taken it. I would not take poke as a precaution; it is far too strong to be used that way. Only if I knew that I was likely to have been exposed to the pathogen would I use it (one drop twice a day; if I felt symptoms, I would increase to four times a day or more, as seemed reasonable at the time). How reassuring to know that a simple home-made tincture of a common garden weed can give my immune system the boost it needs when confronted with danger. An herbal first aid kit may seem insignificant in the face of the troubles in our nation and in the world, but it is a step toward health independence and -- I believe -- a step toward peace. Instead of making war on weeds like poke, I love them. Instead of making war on nature, I take her as a guide. Instead of making war on myself when I have an injury or illness, a problem or a pain, I nourish myself toward ever greater health. Green blessings surround us, uplifting our hearts and bringing joy even in trying and uncertain times. May the dancing green woman (thank you Lisa Thiel) fill you with peace.
(Next: My ally, the wicked witch comfrey.)
Is there any way of using herbs in the case of biological warfare?
Would they work well to heal us if something like this should happen?
DD Edwards/Green Mama D
It is always wise to cultivate health in your daily life, and now more than ever. A vital immune system is my first defense against the constant barrage of biological warfare that the real world throws at us every day: disease-causing bacteria, viruses, poisons -- no need to worry about imaginary enemies, Mother Nature already has been "attacking" you since before you were born!
To keep Nature's bad boys (and others) from harming me, I keep my immune system supple and strong. How? With nourishing herbal infusions and immune-strengthening soups.
Nourishing herbal infusions -- made by steeping one full ounce of herb, by weight, in a quart jar filled to the top with boiling water and tightly lidded, for four hours or overnight -- are full of antioxidant vitamins, minerals, proteins, phytoestrogens, and hundreds of protective phytochemicals. I drink two to four cups a of infusion daily, rotating over a four-day cycle through nettle, red clover, comfrey leaf, and oatstraw. One of my apprentices -- who has been drinking nourishing infusions for several years now -- was told by her doctor that she had the healthiest blood he'd ever seen. (For more information on infusions, please visit www.susunweed.com)
Immune-strengthening soups rely on a long steeping time too. I start by cooking onions in lots of olive oil. Then I add garlic, vegetables of the season, a lot of seaweed, some mushrooms, tonic roots, seasoning herbs, sea salt and vegetable broth. I bring it all to a boil, simmer for an hour, then let it mellow in a cool place overnight. I serve it the next day, heated up, with freshly -baked bread and my homemade goats' milk cheese. (There are recipes for several immune strengthening soups in my book Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way.) Seaweeds help remove radiation from body tissues (heavy metals too). I like heavy seaweeds like kombu and wakame in soups, but try sea palm fronds, nereocystis kelp, hijiki, and alaria too; they all taste different.
All mushrooms strengthen the immune system and counter cancer. I frequently use dried shitake as I can easily buy them at a Chinese grocery store. Reishii, maitake, and other medicinal mushrooms are always welcome, as are the more common dried porcinni, and fresh portobellos. Tonic roots help our livers, lymph, and kidneys work well, protecting us from infection. I use one or more, depending on what I have available: Siberian ginseng, astragalus, burdock, dandelion, chicory, yellow dock, American ginseng.
Seasoning herbs from the mint family -- rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, and sage -- are loaded with antioxidants. I don't just season the soup with them, I add them by the handful.
Prevention doesn't always work, of course. So I also keep one ounce of poke root tincture and a full quart each of St. Joan's wort and echinacea tinctures on hand.
c. 2003 Susun S. Weed
Two more questions:
Where can I purchase St. J's and what do you mean the skin has to learn how to use it? Jennifer
And: Can I use the tincture instead of the oil as a sunscreen?
I can't give you recommendations as to where to buy St. Joan's wort oil other than those places listed in my books and at my website (www.susunweed.com). Yes, most health food stores carry it. I have not heard of any problems with the purity of this oil as it is a simple infu sion and the chances for impurities are minimal, unlike essential oils, which are dangerous and drug-like and must be produced in a chemical laboratory where impurities can arise.
I believe you will be satisfied with any product that contains nothing more than Hypericum perforatum blossoms and oil. Good quality St. J's oil will be a glowing orangey red with yellow ish "sediment" (actually the flower pollen) at the bottom of the bottle. Oils that are not red were made with dried flowers (which release very little of their value) or older fresh blossoms (which are partially oxidized). Because the color is critical to judging the quality of St. J's oil, I would not buy it in a brown or colored glass bottle.
I find the application of Hypericum oil on all exposed skin prevents my skin from burning, but I would not apply it and sit in a tropical sun for hours. Give your skin a chance to learn how to resist burning: apply the oil daily for at least ten days and exposure your skin to the sun for gradually increasing times. Then you can probably safely use it as a sun screen for longer and brighter exposures. If I am in the sun all day (like horse-back riding in Provence), I reapply the oil every few hours for maximum protection. If I burn, I apply the oil liberally to the reddened skin every 10-15 minutes to relieve pain and prevent blistering.
The is a difference between Hypericum tincture and Hypericum oil. The former is used inter nally, the latter externally. I have no idea if using the tincture externally would also be a sun screen, but my best guess is a resounding "no." If you experiment, please let me know what happens.
Green Blessings. c. 2003 Susun S. Weed
with Susun Weed
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dear Susun ,,,
it was a joy to meet you at the herbal conference in June...
I am writing to let you know your words that day came full circle for me....
I love working with herbs, and I have incorporated them into my daily life... your immune soup is one of my favorites.. helping me through my journey with cancer.
It was 5 years this past April.... that day 5 years ago seeing your book and using it , has taken me on a path.... of whole health..
I recently opened a yoga studio and I continue to encourage others to look within themselves for what they need to do for themselves: diet, resting , toxic thoughts..... I continue to be in awe of this life .. I also love the way you talk about your herbs...and the energy that comes from plants....
I wish you love and light... and I hope our paths cross again..
thank you so much......