Herbal Remedies: Therapeutic Properties of Pokeweed

Pokeweed is said to exert a positive influence on the lymphatic system, stimulating glandular action and relieving swollen glands, goiter, enlarged thyroid glands, lymphadenitis and mumps. It is a very potent herb, and its unique chemistry is believed to enhance immune function and act as an antiviral and anti-inflammatory. Pokeweed also acts as a powerful purgative.


Pokeweed is a North American native and one of many species of Phytolaccas that are distributed worldwide. It is an erect weed that may be found in damp fields, open woods and waste places, reaching a height of twelve feet, and thriving in rich, moist, well-drained soil in sun.

The herbaceous perennial produces a branched, purplish, succulent stem that bears large, pointed leaves and upright spikes of small, greenish-white flowers that develop into hanging clusters of purple-to-black berries, which contain a deep red juice. The botanical genus, Phytolacca, is derived from the Greek word, phyton, meaning “plant” and the Latin, lacca, meaning “lacquer.”


The English name, Pokeweed, is believed to be a derivative of the Native American words, pocan, referring to any plant yielding a red dye, and pak meaning “blood ” Pokeweed was utilized by the First Nations of North America as a purgative, emetic and anti-rheumatic, and it was officially listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1916 as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory.

It has also played a long and important role in herbal medicine as a treatment for cancer and is, in fact, one of the constituents in the Hoxsey Formula (unapproved by the orthodox medical community) for the management of many types of cancer, alluding to one of the plant’s common names, Cancer Root. Other common names, Ink Berry and Red Ink Plant refer to the rich color of the berries that were used in the ink that penned the United States Constitution (it would, in fact, make a wonderful dye, but is rather unstable). Although most parts of the plant are poisonous, very young shoots and young leaves have been eaten like asparagus after being boiled in many, many changes of water.

Pokeweed is cultivated as a popular ornamental in Europe and was once used in Portugal to color port wines. The dried roots and berries of Pokeweed are used in herbal medicines, but it is important to understand that all parts, notably the leaves and bernes, are toxic if eaten fresh, and must be processed before being used medicinally. Some of the constituents in Pokeweed include alkaloids (betanine, betanidine, phytolaccine, etc.), triterpene saponins, bitter resin, tannin, glycoprotein lectins (sometimes called Pokeweed mitogens), esculentic acid, jaligonic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, GABA, histamine, PAP (Pokeweed antiviral protein), spinasterol, sterols, starch, saccharose and potassium salts.

Pokeweed is considered an “alterative.” or agent that helps to gradually and favorably alter the course of an ailment or condition. It helps to modify the process of nutrition and excretion, restoring normal bodily function, as well as acting to cleanse and stimulate the efficient removal of waste products from the system. As such, it not only cleanses the intestinal tract and blood, but it is also thought to cleanse the liver by encouraging bile flow and releasing accumulated toxins.

The result of cleaner blood is a great help for many skin diseases, and Pokeweed is said to be excellent for alleviating scrofula, eczema, psoriasis and lingering infections.

As an antiviral, Pokeweed (or Pokeroot) has an unusual chemistry. The glycosidase, PAP (Pokeweed antiviral protein has been shown to inactivate ribosomes in both eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells and has demonstrated potent antiviral activity against many viruses, including HIV. in vitro. It is also currently being researched for possible use in anti-AIDS drugs.

Pokeweed contains substances referred to collectively as Pokeweed mitogens that are said to affect cell division. They are toxic to many disease-causing organisms, including the water snails that cause schistosomiasis.


Pokeweed is believed to contain potent anti-inflammatory agents that have been used to relieve tracheitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, chronic catarrh, inflamed mucous membranes and many rheumatic complaints.

As a lymphagogue, Pokeweed is thought to be excellent in cases of stagnation and cessation of flow associated with lymphatic and glandular stasis. This activity is important because the lymphatic system transports infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes, is also involved in the removal of foreign matter and cell debris by phagocytes, and is part of the body’s immune system. It has been used to relieve swollen glands, enlarged thyroid glands, goiter, lymphadenitis, mumps, lymphedema and many other lymphatic disorders.

Further supporting its importance as a potent immune enhancer, Pokeweed is believed to stimulate macrophage activity. Phytolacca mitogens have demonstrated an immuno-stimulating effect by enhancing hemagglutination, leucagglutination and mitogenicity (proliferation of T and B lymphocytes) and an increase in peripheral blood plasma cells.

Pokeweed is considered a cathartic and emetic. Its purgative actions work to cause copious and rapid evacuation of the bowels, and its emetic properties work to induce vomiting.

Traditional herbalists have been using Pokeweed for years in treatments for certain types of cancers There are claims that Pokeweed has been effective in cases of uterine, throat and breast cancer. It has been utilized topically in poultices, as well as internally (and is an important ingredient in the controversial Hoxsey formula for cancer care) and other herbal blends. It is important to note that the Hoxsey formula is not sanctioned by the orthodox medical community Pokeweed is also used to relieve swollen and caked breasts (mastitis).

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