My sister’s father-in-law told someone that I “got my Ph.D. in weeds.” He’s not wrong. I studied native and non-native old-field plants in SE Michigan. This usually doesn’t really help when he or a friend has a question about a weed in Tennessee…but it does help me to notice the plants in the margins around us. Noticing sometimes turns to gathering and crafting, like my adventures gathering pokeberries this summer.
American pokeweed or pokeberry
I’ve long admired pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. It’s a native weedy plant, found in margins along road sides, along train tracks, in clearances under power lines, and in other scrubby areas not too shaded by trees. Over generations, it survives by moving among open spaces in the landscape, needing a new spot once trees shade it out of a place it earlier thrived. Its juicy berries tempt the birds to eat it and then move its seeds around the landscape as they fly (and drop pokeweed seeds).
Although luscious-looking, its berries, leaves, and stems are toxic to humans if eaten. Some people do eat it, even consider it a delicacy, but only after multiple boilings (more on poke sallet from Saveur magazine). It’s safe to touch, which is good, because I got it all over me when gathering the berries.
It’s a tall, lanky herb. While it can grow to the size of a shrub, it is not woody: its stems die back to the ground every year. Its leaves are a rich green against distinctive dark red-purple stems and deep purple ripe berries. The color of its stems and fruit stalks is one of my favorite colors. I have purchased items and even yarn that color many times. Its Latin name “phytolacca” is from the Greek for plant and the Latin for a red dye. This name is practical and accurate.
Pokeberries are excellent for dyeing
I’m a knitter, and after years of knitting I began to wonder about how colors I used were made. Then, a single pokeweed plant growing in the margin of my yard inspired me to gather plant materials for dyeing wool.
Rebecca Burgess’ book Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes has instructions for dyeing yarn with many plant materials, including pokeberries. What struck me was how the dyes change color from their origins. As you can see on the cover of the book: the red zinnia flowers dye wool a warm yellow. In contrast, the rich purple-red of pokeberry-dyed wool matches the berry color closely.
Additionally, as a first-time dyer, I found mordants intimidating. Dyers use mordants like alum, copper, or iron to set the color. These mordants can be toxic to people, frogs, and septic fields if not used carefully. Many sources say that the beautiful red dye from pokeberries is not stable and will fade over time. Rebecca Burgess’ book shared instructions from Carol Leigh who devised a method to use just vinegar that does create a stable dye from the berries (p. 88, Harvesting Color).
Pokeberries seemed perfect as a first-time natural dye: ingredients I already had (vinegar) and a nearby source of berries. Then, I got to the amount I’d need. Burgess recommends a 25:1 ratio of berries to yarn. Since I wanted to dye 100 grams of yarn, that meant collecting 2.5 kg of berries.
Gathering pokeberries in my neighborhood
This year, I have done a lot more walking in my neighborhood than any other year. On a walk in August, I noticed that some pokeberries next to the road along Barton Pond were ripening. So, I started to walk with a plastic bag in my pocket to gather berries. I gathered the ripe fruits, leaving the chalky green ones at the end of some stalks. When I got home, I weighed my bounty.
After pulling ripe berries from several plants, I had little over 200 grams. I would need more than 10x that to dye my sock yarn. Several of my trips yielded less than that.
Plus, Burgess’ book kindly cautions gatherers to leave most of the berries on the plants for the birds. To leave some for the birds and to find enough for my yarn, I needed to widen my search area beyond my walking route.
Soon I was scanning the roadside when I was a passenger in a car, hoping to find a source of more berries. I shared my quest with friends and got prompts of pokeweed they saw on their own walks. Even a friend’s daughter joined me in my quest for berries.
Helped by a companion berry squisher
One summer day in August, we walked our usual route in our neighborhood with friends. Our friends’ daughter, Lilah, joined me in my pokeberry gathering after seeing me stop and strip some berries from a plant. Her particular pokeberry fever manifested as boundless enthusiasm for squishing the berries in the bag. To her it was as satisfying as a bag full of tiny bubble wrap bubbles, each waiting for a satisfying squish.
After receiving a tip from a friend, Lilah and I scouted for berries in a local riverside park. For a while, we couldn’t see any and I doubted the tip, yet eventually our eyes adjusted and we saw first one plant and then many. Instead of by the trail, the plants were a little through the brush, and the easiest way to get to them was to walk along the gravel verge of the railroad tracks. We found several plants on the railroad verge.
Sometimes Lilah held the plastic bag for me while I stripped the berries off the stems into the bag. Sometimes the berries were too high for her and sometimes it was too brushy below the berries. She was patient with me holding my own bag as long as she got to squish the berries. It was hot and I was wearing jeans because I knew I would be wading into some brush. She was in shorts and open-toed shoes, and I worried about poison ivy. So, once we got home, we washed her feet and legs just in case. I should have been a little more mindful and washed my own forearms, I got a slash of oil on my arm that I noticed only when it turned into a welt.
A giant Pokeweed
After finding so many plants along the railroad verge, I thought of other places I should scout. In my mind’s eye, I located an area where there is a rough trail crossing the railroad track. Open, near the railroad track, and just a little damp, I imagined that pokeweed would thrive there. And wow, right at the point where the railroad company had put large concrete blocks to block the trail (and right where people were going around the blocks) was a very large, many stemmed pokeweed plant, its stems bent outward by heavy fruit. Many plants had maybe 100 berries, this one was ten times the size of any I had seen, with hundreds of berries. One of its many the stems had been broken backwards, likely by a pedestrian or biker who needed to pass by on the trail. Other stems were deeper in the brush, replete with fruit, tempting me.
Mindful of avoiding poison ivy, I was in jeans again, and warm in the sun. After stripping fruit for a while, the berries had stained my hands fuschia, and I had darker, thicker stains at my cuticles. I looked like a plant-version of Lady Macbeth—stained palms and fingers, stained back of hand, slashes of purple on my forearm, festooned with drops here and there.
A biker passed on the trail. I can only imagine what he thought. I was standing on the concrete barrier, leaning into a weedpile, and stained purple. He met my eye and then passed on. In COVID-time, chatting with strangers has an extra danger, yet, in my purple phase, I greeted people (from afar) just to let them know I was strange but not unfriendly. I hoped that was better. Maybe it was worse—purple and creepy?
Before I headed home with my berry bounty, I “washed” my hands with some of the hand sanitizer all of us carry everywhere now. The hand-sanitizer lightened but did not clean my hands, and it spread the color more evenly over me. So my hands were dyed light purple/pink…perhaps better but hardly normal.
I chatted with a neighbor unknown to me as I mounted the hill. Only later I realized I looked a mess: red with exertion from the hill and the sun, hair a mess from my bike helmet. My neighbor’s restrained politeness might have been bafflement at this gabby stranger with a red face and purple hands.
What I learned from gathering pokeberries
I searched for and gathered pokeberries on walks and excursions for two months, from early August to the end of September. I gathered them on walks with friends, I strategized new places to walk and search for more. Another friend, Kelly, gathered them on her walks as well.
I froze the berries as I collected them. The ones that Lilah had squished were a liquid, the other bags were berries and sometimes mixed with stalks.
In the beginning, I stripped individual berries into the bag. This was helpful because many of the berries at the ends of the stalks were not yet ripe. I also wanted to know exactly how much the berries weighed, so I didn’t want any stalks in the bag.
I probably should have waited for the entire stalk to ripen, but I was in such a mad gathering mood! Stripping the berries created a mess in the field, covering me with the juice I wanted in the bag. By the end, I carried a small pair of garden shears to snip the stalk of berries. This was great. I stayed clean. Processing them at home was simpler and cleaner than dyeing myself red-purple in the field. It did mean my bag-weight now included weight of stalks.
Most importantly, my pokeberry gathering tuned me into the scrub around me. I watched berries ripen on successive walks. My friend Kelly watched pokeberries ripen on her walks with her dog, and noticed once they ripened, the birds picked the plants she had been watching clean.
I had newfound respect for the plant, and its ability to travel the landscape. The original pokeweed that was in my yard that inspired this whole adventure is long gone. Perhaps got shaded out (the spot I recall is now under a smallish oak tree).
In my work in computers, I have wandered from my field ecology training. This project gathering pokeberries put me back in touch with myself and with my surroundings: a juicy “purple lining” in this isolated year.