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Poke root (Phytolacca americana) is a flowering shrub with red-pink stems and black-purple berries. It’s native to the southwest and eastern regions of the United States, but it grows throughout the country. You can also find it in South America, Europe, and Asia.

The plant is generally seen as an annoying weed. It can be found in the wild, along with urban and suburban areas. Sometimes, it’s grown for culinary or decorative purposes.

Poke root has many names, including:

  • poke weed (or pokeweed)
  • pokeberry
  • ink berry
  • American nightshade
  • American scoke
  • pigeonberry
  • red plant
  • pocan

Historically, poke root is used in food, medicine, and dye for fabric and wine. But despite these traditional uses, the whole plant is toxic to people. It needs to be cooked in a specific way in order to be safe.

As an herbal remedy, poke root has displayed some medicinal benefits in lab and animal studies. But human research is lacking, so there’s no proof it can benefit people.

Let’s explore what the science says about poke root, along with its side effects and uses.

Scientists are studying the plant for potential antitumor properties. Anecdotally, it’s been used to treat breast conditions, including breast cancer.

Specifically, researchers are examining a compound in poke root called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP). PAP is cytotoxic to cells, which means it causes cell death.

A 2003 lab animal study suggests that PAP may be cytotoxic to breast cancer cells. It may work by targeting cells that have receptors for gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Such cells include human breast cancer cells.

Another 2004 lab study found similar results. Yet, both studies are outdated, and the results haven’t been replicated in humans.

There’s also conflicting research. In a 2012 lab study, scientists failed to find that poke root can work against breast cancer.

New human research is necessary to prove whether poke root can help treat breast cancer or its symptoms.

Poke root is also sometimes used for inflammation and breast conditions like mastitis.

Mastitis occurs when breast tissue becomes inflamed. The condition typically affects women who are breastfeeding.

Users claim poke root can help because it has anti-inflammatory properties. They say it’s due to the plant’s saponins, which are anti-inflammatory compounds found in the Phytolacca species.

However, a 1976 study is the only experiment that has found this benefit, so the research is extremely outdated, and more is needed.

Other benefits of poke root have been found in cell cultures or animals. These medicinal benefits haven’t been observed in people. There’s some evidence poke root may help:

Colon cancer

According to a 2014 study, poke root extract may work against colon cancer cells by altering gene expression. Another 2015 study found that poke root seeds have antitumor activity against human colon cancer cells.

Oral diseases

Poke root may also have antibacterial properties. In a 2014 lab study, poke root extracts destroyed bacteria responsible for periodontal disease and cavities. The researchers speculated that poke root works by inhibiting important enzymes in the bacteria.

Most of the purported benefits of poke root are anecdotal. It hasn’t been proven to help any of the following conditions:

The whole poke root plant is poisonous to humans. The berries are the most toxic part.

Poke root is also poisonous to dogs and other animals. If you have pets, make sure they avoid the plant.

In people, poke root can cause the following side effects when taken orally or topically:

High doses can lead to:

In rare cases, high doses of poke root may lead to death.

If you’re breastfeeding, avoid applying poke root products on your breasts. It’s unsafe for your baby to consume poke root.

Poke root is used in several ways. It’s available as:

Poke root capsules

Dried poke root can be crushed and taken in capsules.

Like all supplements, poke root capsules aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Always buy from a reputable retailer, and speak to a doctor before taking these capsules.

Poke root tincture

A poke root tincture is made by infusing alcohol with poke root. It’s taken directly by mouth or mixed with liquid, like water.

Since tinctures contain alcohol, avoid them if you’re pregnant. Talk to a doctor before trying a poke root tincture.

Poke root oil

Poke root oil is an herbal oil that’s infused with poke root. It can be made with various carrier oils, such as olive oil. It’s applied topically.

Poke root salve

The herb is also used as a salve, which is a medicated ointment that’s applied on the skin. It’s made by infusing beeswax and oils with poke root.

Poke root salve is sometimes called poke root ointment.

Poke root tea

Some people use poke root as a tea. This remedy is made by steeping dried poke root in hot water for several minutes.

Poke root sallet

Poke sallet, also called poke salat, is a traditional dish in the Southern United States. It’s made by boiling young poke root leaves, which is said to make it safe.

WARNING

Never ingest poke root unless it’s prepared correctly.

You can find products with poke root at specialty retailers, such as:

  • health food stores
  • herbal medicine stores
  • herb and spice retailers

Shop for poke root products online.

Poke root is a traditional herbal remedy said to treat cancer, infections, and inflammation, but the available research has only involved cell cultures or animals. The supposed benefits haven’t been proven in humans.

Raw poke root is toxic to people. When eaten or applied topically, the plant can cause side effects like severe nausea or diarrhea. It shouldn’t be ingested unless prepared properly.

If you’d like to use poke root, use caution. Always buy poke root products from a reputable retailer to ensure it’s safe to use. Avoid the herb if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.