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Botanical Description & Habitat

Phytolacca americana


Common names

American nightshadeCancer jalap
Cancer rootChongrass
Pigeon berryPoke
PokeweedRed ink plant
Red weedScoke

Grows in damp woodlands, hedges, and waste places. It is native to North America and is found in other parts of the world.

Has a large, branched root covered with thin bark which produces an erect, hairless stem that grows from 9 to 12 feet in height. The leaves are light green, egg-shaped, and grow alternately along the stem. The flowers are white or green-white and grow in racemes during July and August. The fruit is a purple berry that ripens in autumn.

Medicinal parts
Root, dried or fresh, collected in autumn
fruit (berries)

Historical Properties & Uses

Young leaves are eaten as "Poke salet", on a commercial basis.

Pokeroot has long been recommended to treat scores of conditions; however, other herbs are more effective in the treatment of all those conditions.

Due to the presence of a saponin mixture known as phytolaccatoxin, many people have been seriously harmed by ingesting pokeroot. Use of the herb should be avoided completely; it is included in this database solely to discourage its use.

Method of Action

There is presently insufficient data on this subject.

Drug Interactions & Precautions

Known Interactions
Due to pokeroot's cathartic activity, it may potentiate anticoagulant therapy by reducing absorption of vitamin K from the gut, and may inhibit absorption of dextrose from the intestines.

As a cathartic herb, pokeroot increases the intestinal transit time. Therefore, this herb may inhibit the absorption of digitalis glycosides and decrease their cardiac action. Cathartic-induced hypokalemia, however, increases toxicity and potency of absorbed digitalis, and potentiates muscle relaxants.

In addition to the specific interactions listed, the cathartic action of pokeroot tends to hasten the passage of all oral medications through the gut, thereby inhibiting their action.

Possible Interactions
The CNS depressant tendency of this analgesic may be potentiated by chlorprothixene HCl, haloperidol, and tranquilizers. Pokeroot's analgesic effects may be additive with other analgesics and anesthetics.

Conversely, these analgesic effects may be inhibited by barbiturates, despite any CNS-depressant effects which may occur. The analgesic property of pokeroot may be reversed or even eliminated by P-chlorophenylalanine, cyproheptadine HCl, and phenobarbital.

The tannin in pokeroot may potentiate the antibiotic activity of echinacea. The tannin in pokeroot tea may be inactivated by the addition of milk or cream.

Safety Factors & Toxicity

Pokeroot is a strong emetic and purgative, but these properties are signs of toxicity, not therapeutic value. Phytolaccatoxin, a saponin mixture, is responsible for most of its toxicity, but this substance has not been studied much. Pokeroot also contains a proteinaceous mitogen called PWM, which is absorbed during digestion and has produced several kinds of blood cell abnormalities.

Some toxic symptoms include diminished respiration, hypotension, gastroenteritis, and emesis. There are cases on record of deaths in children and hospitalization of adults. In one recent case, a woman drank about one cup of pokeroot tea and required intensive hospital care to recover.

The Herb Trade Association has issued a statement urging that pokeroot be removed from the shelves of health food stores; it also recommends further any product containing pokeroot be appropriately labelled with warnings concerning the plant's potential toxicity.

Preparation & Administration

The young leaves should be boiled and reboiled. Even then toxicity may occur.

Three times a day

Dried root
0.06-0.3 grams

made from 1/16 tsp of dried root

Fluid extract
1:1 in 45% alcohol, 0.1-0.5 ml

1:10 in 45% alcohol, 0.2-0.6 ml

Note: This Herbal Preparation information is a summary of data from books and articles by various authors. It is not intended to replace the advice or attention of health care professionals.


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