Pokeweed Ink

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pokeberry-plant.jpgIn mid-August, my friend Jane came over and pointed out that she thought a weed in my yard was an elderberry plant. I remembered my lawn guy (I had several of the plants in my back yard as well) saying it was something else, so I made a mental note to look it up.

Weeks went by, and every time I’d pull into my driveway, I’d think about looking up the plant, and then promptly forget once I’d gotten into my house. Finally, this past weekend, I looked it up and found that the plant was not the delicious Sambucus, but the deadly poisonous Phytolacca Americana a.k.a. pokeweed. http://altnature.com/gallery/pokeweed.htm

Don’t let its slow-sounding name fool you. Pokeweed takes its name from the Native American word “pocan,” which from the Web sites I found either means red-dye or blood. Pokeweed goes by another name as well – inkweed. In fact, according to the great Wikipedia, fermented pokeweed was used as ink on the Declaration of Independence.

Once I discovered that the plant was a potential provider of ink, it moved from weed to must-have.Donning rubber gloves, I harvested a bowl full of the berries and went into ink-processing mode. Quite simply, I smooshed the berries with the back of a spoon and then used a screen to strain it into an old salsa bottle. The color is so extremely vivid, and matches the pink of the plants stem exactly. I have been reading Ryukyu Saito’s Japanese Ink-Painting and I’m quite positive that I will attempt a Sumi painting of a pokeweed at some point.The current ink I have now is quite easy to wash away and dilutes well with water. Supposedly the ink becomes permanent when it ferments, however, I assume that the fermentation process will also cause it to turn brown. The ink is also not UV resistant, so any pieces done with it will need to either be framed under UV glass or kept out of direct sunlight. It is also a very heavy ink, and I will need to strain it again, as some of the skins and pulp clogged my nib when I attempted to write with it. (It probably didn’t help that nib was a bit old and rusty.)(Please note that these colors are pretty darn accurate to what I saw in real life. It really is THAT purple.)

Update: pokeweed-post.jpgThe ink is finally done. I decided to let some ferment after reading an article on wine making in Craft magazine. (If that article is gone, here’s an equally good explanation.) After draining off a bit to test on Jane’s pottery, I left the the remaining pokeberry juice to ferment, just to see what the permanent version of the ink looked like.

I’ll admit I didn’t really follow the directions. I left off the step where you add yeast to the mashed berries. I had read that pokeberries actually ferment on the vine, and not intent on consuming the pokeberries, I let wild yeast (yes, there is wild yeast floating in the air all the time) do the fermenting as I didn’t want to add anything to the juice. The pokeweed juice bubbled and frothed and eventually settled. A cap of mold had formed at the top, and so I was very hesitant to open the bottle. When I did, it smelled like a cheap bottle of blackberry wine: sweet and alcoholic. I used an old nylon stocking to strain the juice into bottles. The color had deepened to a more royal purple, and further reading on the pokeberry has confirmed that the ink will turn brown over time.

I am quite happy with it, despite being able to get only four tiny bottles out of this harvest. There are still a few berries left outside, so I may have to give it another go before fall truly sets in.

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