Poke Berries And History

Hello friends! Tonight’s feature image is titled “Pokeweed Berries 81419”. The image was taken specifically for this article. Unless stated otherwise all photos are my original work and are available as prints by following the instructions at the bottom of the article.

My Appalachian ancestors were resourceful people as was the case with most early settlers. They had to fabricate almost everything they had. Iincluding ink.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plant in tonight’s feature image it’s Pokeweed. Sometimes called Poke salet or just plain old Poke. It’s a wild edible plant that requires a little processing in order to safely consume and never when the stems are red. One day we’ll do a Forage Friday post about Poke and the hows as well as the whens of eating Poke greens but for now treat it like poison. Tonight I want to focus on the berries. As far as I know the berries are always poison. What they are good for is making ink.

I have grown up with the knowledge that the U.S. Constitution was written in poke berry ink. However, that’s just an urban legend. ( It’s not written on hemp either. It’s Parchment which is an animal product. ) While I’m a little disappointed to find out that such an important document wasn’t created with the aid of a native plant Poke berry ink was a more common medium back at the time. It was used for less important writing. During the civil war soldiers used it to write letters to home and I’m sure that it was used for anything that didn’t require a permanent record. That’s because the ink just doesn’t last well. It reacts to U.V. light and soon turns brown. Eventually it fades away so much that it can’t be read.

Before I started writing I did a quick Google and found a few facts about poke berry ink. Using the raw unprocessed juice doesn’t work. Apparently the juice alone rots quickly and the message is lost. The prefered method is by fermenting the ink. The alcohol from the fermentation process acts as a preservative. One person said that you can use vinegar to mix up poke berry ink and there seems to be plenty of recipes online.

My personal experience with poke berries as ink just may have been the original paintball game. I remember that we used to make slingshots with rubber bands and use the berries as ammo. The purplish red stain left little doubt as to who was hit.

I hope to do an actual post on poke greens in the Spring but for now the berries are what’s in season. Those who homeschool might step out and collect a jar full of them and look up some of the ink recipes for a historical expiriment.

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