Common Names

Poke Root , American nightshade
Botanical Name
Phytolacca americana
Syn. Phytolacca decandra
Family Phytolaccaceae

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the roots of 'Poke'; a most impressive looking plant reaching 4 meters in height and having strong purple-green stems that support flourishes of drooping flowers eventually giving way to large clusters of purple berries.




How has it been used?

Poke Root is regarded as one of the most important of the American indigenous plants and one of the most striking in appearance. M. Grieves writes headaches of many sources are benefited by it... the extract has been used in chronic rheumatism and it is also stated to be of undoubted value as an internal remedy in cancer of the breast. As with all herbal authors on Poke Root Grieve emphasises the need for caution describing its potential action in higher doses as a slow emetic and purgative with narcotic properties.

Poke Root is a powerful cleansing remedy, used to help especially when the lymphatic system has become congested. This may show up in the early stages as being chronically tired with slightly swollen glands but by the time the lymph has really sludged up things may have gone all the way down to advanced rheumatism, respiratory disease or auto-immunity issues; conditions that Poke Root has traditionally been used to treat.


Science on Poke Root

~ Unsurprisingly, given its potential for toxicity, there are no clinical studies on people using Poke Root but there has been a little laboratory research that has shown that the saponins in Poke Root have anti-inflammatory activity (Woo WS, Shin KH, Kang SS, Soul Tachakkyo Saengyak Yonguso Opjukipip 1976;15:103-106)

~ It has also been conjectured that the immune system effects of Poke Root may be caused by the presence of substances called mitogenic lectins in the plant which may interact with gut associated lymphoid tissue and may be absorbed in small quantities. These lectins are used pharmacologically to stimulate cell division and increase the production of antibodies within white blood cells (Basham TY, Toyoshima S, Finkelman F et al. Cell Immunol 1981;63(1):118-133)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of over 70 further studies and articles on Poke root are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Poke Root

Poke root should not be used medicinally by the young and nor should it be taken whilst pregnant or during breast-feeding. Excess doses of Poke Root may harm the liver and the kidneys and do lasting and severe damage to the nervous system. This is a herb that should only be prescribed by a qualified herbalist who is experienced in its safe use.


Personal experiences

The first rule of medicine is; primum non nocere, ‘firstly do no harm’. I have great respect for Poke Root and have used it thousands of times in my work with people who need deep cleansing support; however this is a herb that must be used with great care. By the time you are taking enough Poke Root for it to do its healing and cleansing thing, there is a narrow threshold before it starts acting as a poison.

Too much Poke Root can definitely do considerable harm but the much more common mistake made with Poke Root is to use it before the body is ready for the kind of cleansing it can produce. Unless it is used in very small dosages where its action will be rather diluted it is best to make sure the bowel and kidneys are working well before using Poke Root at any kind of strong medicinal dose.

In any case I would say that Poke Root is not a medicine for experimenting with and would say not to go anywhere near it unless you really know what you are doing! In my own practice I will often give a drop or two and listen carefully to my patients pulse to gauge whether it strengthens or balances the pulse and also to get a sense of the degree of sensitivity. When I then use Poke root I typically measure the dose in drops per days and depending on the person I might use as little as 5 drops or as much as 20, always combined with other herbs. Likewise the length of treatment could be as little as a week or as much as month or even two. In a nutshell it is a herb to use with great care and respect.

Poke Root combines powerfully with Calendula and Cleavers to achieve deep and lasting cleansing for chronic stuck conditions. It also can work exceptionally well with Devil's Claw for arthritis and with Red Clover for stubborn skin problems.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Poke Root is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Poke Root can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Physiologically, Poke Root acts upon the skin, the glandular structures, especially those of the buccal cavity, throat, sexual system, and very markedly upon the mammary glands. It further acts upon the fibrous and serous tissues, and mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tracts. In certain conditions of the system which might come under the head of dyscrasia (bad blood), it proves a most valuable alterative. Scrofulous, syphilitic, and rheumatic conditions are invariably benefited by it. It is best suited to chronic rheumatism, and syphilitic and rheumatic joint affections.

The condition which calls for it is one of indolent action of the skin; it is often indicated in chronic eczema, syphilitic eruptions, psoriasis, tinea capitis, favus, and varicose and other ulcers of the leg. In diseases of the mouth and throat it is highly esteemed. It is useful in acute and chronic mucous affections, as in tracheitis, laryngitis, influenza, catarrh, and especially in those affections where there is a tendency to the formation of catarrh and phlegm.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd