A North American herbaceous plant of the genus Phytolacca (P. decandra), bearing dark purple, juicy berries; – called also cocum, garget, pigeon-berry, pocan, and poke-weed. The root has active properties, and has been used in medicine. The young shoots are sometimes eaten as a substitute for asparagus, and the berries are used, in Europe, to color wine. — Webster, 1882
A question has arisen as to how this well known plant received its common name and some have gone so far as to suggest that it was named in honor of President Polk, but this will not do as it was common in Pennsylvania before the President was born. Meehan’s Monthly, Volume 1, Number 4, page 54.
The magenta red/purple dye extracted from pokeberries had long been in use prior to Laura Ingalls’ birth in 1867, mostly by home-dyers. Pokeberry (Phtoloacca decandra) was included in a publication by Swedish natural historian, Peter Kalm, in his Travels into North America, published in 1770. He wrote about a 1748 visit in the Philadelphia area:
The Phytoloacca decandra was called Poke by the English. The Swedes had no particular name for it, but made use of the English, with some little variation into Paok. When the juice of its berries is put upon paper or the like, it strikes it with a high purple color, which is as fine as any in the world; and it is a pity that no method is as yet found out, of making this color last of woolen and linen cloth, for it fades very soon. — Pehr Kalm, Travels Into North America, Volume I (London: T. Lowndes, 1773), 153.
Kalm goes on to write about pokeberry’s medicinal properties, as food for birds, and as an early salad green, although all parts of the mature plant are poisonous. In Little House in the Big Woods, it’s the ink made from pokeberries that color the ragdoll Susan’s mouth and lips (see Chapter 4, “Christmas”), the only time pokeberry is mentioned in the Little House books. In a handwritten Big Woods manuscript, Wilder writes it as two words: “poke berry.”
For the cheek and lip coloring used below, I simply mashed a couple of ripe pokeberries in a small container and used a small watercolor brush to dab the liquid in place. As pokeberry is a temporary dye, the color will fade and wash out easily. No wonder Ma had to replace Charlotte’s face after she’d drowned in the puddle at Anna Nelson’s house! Note that in On the Banks of Plum Creek (see Chapter 29, “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn”), Wilder wrote that Charlotte’s original mouth had been “smiling yarn” that was now “bleeding red on her cheek,” but perhaps it was yarn used to stich the doll’s mouth that had been dyed with pokeberries.
pokeberry (BW 4)