Getting some color into the valley

Finally the clouds have gone.  Just delightful to see Orion and the moon again.  Last time the moon was visible, it was nearly full.  Now its less than a quarter and waning fast.  Such a long period of cloudiness is very unusual in the Delta.  Oftentimes we go months without having a sunless day.  Probably because its so flat here, the storms just sweep in and sweep out.  The systems don’t hang on like they do in the hills of Missouri and Kentucky and northern Arkansas.  We needed the rain, though, so we won’t complain too much.

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Another reason not to complain is that we almost always do get the sun at sunset.  The last two days, its been cloudy all day, but just before sunset a narrow band of clear sky appeared on the horizon.  Just a couple of minutes before sunset, the sun appeared in that band and our spirits soared.  I don’t know why it happens, but often does down at the Delta outpost.

It’s really easy to understand why people in rainy, cloudy regions have white skin. When you hardly ever see the Sun, you have to minimize all barriers to getting the sun’s plenty, including that Vitamin D, in.  Maybe that’s why almost everyone in the Ozarks is white.

Many are so used to only seeing white people that they are a little nonplussed when another hue intrudes.   Consistent with the complementary diversity quality of resilient systems, many and varied ethnics have worked on the Resilience Project.

If you’ve ever seen a blue-eyed Lebanese person with light brown hair, you might not call them a person of color.  But when one such lovely Lebanese Christian girl first spent time with a family who lives in the Meadow Creek Valley, the matriarch exclaimed, “It’s great to get some color in the valley.”

I’m somewhat oblivious sometimes to the reactions of others to race.  So, once at the Blue Hole, I was telling some valley residents of the background of another Meadowcreeker.  “Did you know how her great-grandfather got to the US? He killed a man in Mexico and ran across the border to escape the Federales.  He changed his name and would never tell anyone what his real name was.”  She mildly upbraided me afterward, reminding me that Ozark folk sometimes don’t like outsiders.  Guess I sometimes underestimate others’ racism.

I have a snub nose and thick lips, almost could pass for an albino African.  Maybe that’s why I like to color my face partially black at Halloween.  One year I used partially burnt cork.  Nowadays there is face paint.  Some use dyemakers puffball. What I don’t recommend at all is pokeweed.  Now that it is past Halloween, I can safely explore the marvels of pokeweed.

Oh how I wanted to write about pokeweed before Halloween.  But children read these essays and I didn’t want to lead any of them to the pokeweed patch and have their mothers get mad at me when they came back dyed purple, indelibly.  It just doesn’t wash off.

There are still a few pokeweed berries hanging on, but most of them are gone.  If you remember next year, pokeweed always gets mature in early October in Arkansas, just in time for Halloween.   

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a herbaceous perennial plant growing up to 8 feet tall.  It is native to the eastern United States.  It has simple leaves on green to purplish stems and a large white taproot. The flowers are green to white, followed by the purple to almost black berries which are a food source for songbirds such the mockingbird and cardinal, as well as other birds and some small animals.  Distribution via these animals is thought to accounts for the appearance of single, isolated plants in areas that had otherwise not been populated by pokeweed.

Some farmers consider it a pest, but then again, some farmers consider anything but corn and soybeans to be pests.  When mature it is said to be poisonous to people however.   Some cite children begin poisoned by eating the attractive purple berries and argue for eradication of P. americana.

Pokeweed provokes interest among medical researchers for the variety of its natural products (toxins, saponins,  and other classes), its historical role in traditional medicine, and for some utility in biomedical research (e.g., in studies of pokeweed mitogen).

Pokeweed is promoted in alternative medicine as a dietary supplement that can treat a wide range of maladies including mumps, arthritis and various skin conditions.  Indians and early settlers used the root in poultices and certain drugs for skin diseases and rheumatism.  The late 19th century herbal, the King’s American Dispensatory, describes various folk medical uses that led individuals to ingest pokeberry products.

In the wild, it is easily found growing in pastures, recently cleared areas, and woodland openings, edge habitats such as along fence rows, and in waste places.

One of the foremost and most fun uses of pokeweed is in poke salat.  Since its a perennial, it pokes its early leaves above ground before about anything else can get it together.

If you haven’t gotten enough greens during the winter, you should be drooling in anticipation of the first poke leaves to poke through the leaves.  Poke is a traditional southern Appalachian food. The leaves and stems can both be eaten, but people always cook them.  I guess to get out any of the compounds which our bodies react to.

The leaves have a taste like spinach; the stems taste somewhat like asparagus. But, really, it has a taste all its own.  Traditionally, poke is boiled, then fatback is added and cooked some more to add flavor.

If you’ve never had it, you are missing a real treat.  So go out now and find some pokeweed plants.  Commit their location to memory.  Then, when February starts to warm up just a dab, start walking daily to your pokeweed patch.  Soon you will be rewarded with enough leaves to make a wonderful poke salat.

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