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Phytolaccaceae (Pokeweed Family)

Forms and Subspecies

The Chinese make a distinction between a form

with white flowers and a white root, which they

regard as harmless and edible, and a form with red

flowers and a reddish root, which is considered

dangerous, toxic, and hallucinogenic (Li 1978,

21 *). The edible type is presumably the variety

esculenta Maxim., which formerly was regarded as

a distinct species (see "Synonyms").


Phytolacca esculenta Van Houtte

Folk Names

Cancer-root, Chinese pokeweed, chinesische kermesbeere,

dpa' -bo dkar-po, dpa' -bo ser-po (Tibetan, fu, Indian poke, jaringo, jaringo sag (Nepali),

juniper, kermesbeerspinat, pokeweed, shang lu,

shang-Iu, sweet belladonna, tibetische kermesbeere,

white pokeberry, yellow pokeberry


The edible variety (var. esculenta) is mentioned in

the ancient Shih Ching, the Book of Songs (ca.

1000-500 B.C.E.), under the name fu (Keng 1974,

402*). The leaves have long been eaten as a

vegetable (Li 1978,21*). The plant is still in use in

traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine. The

genus Phytolacca is now quite well known

pharmacologically and chemically (Woo 1978).

The psychoactivity of the plant is debated.


In the Himalayas, the plant occurs at altitudes

between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (Polunin and Stainton 1985, 342*). It is found in Tibet, China,

Korea, Japan, and India and has become naturalized

in some parts of Europe (e.g., Greece). The

plant also may be found in many European

botanical gardens.


The plant is propagated from seeds, which should

be pregerminated and planted in good topsoil.

This perennial is quite easy to grow in central

Europe. The aboveground herbage dies back after

the fruiting period. The root sends forth new

shoots the following spring.


This bushy, heavily ramified plant can grow to a

height of about 1 meter. It has large, oblong,

attenuated leaves that can grow as long as 26 em.

The stems are normally light green in color but

may also be violet. The terminal flowers grow in

clusters. The flowers are whitish, while the ripe

berries are dark violet to black. The plant flowers

in June and the fruits mature by August. The

racemes sometimes bear fruits and flowers

simultaneously. The plant has a turnip-shaped

root tuber.

Shang lu is easily confused with American

pokeberry (Phytolacca americana L. [syn. Phytolacca

decandra L.]). North American Indians of

the Pacific Southwest allegedly used this species as

a narcotic (Emboden 1986, 164*).277

In contrast to Phytolacca americana, Phytolacca

acinosa has vertical upright inflorescences and

infructescences; in the American relative, both of

these lean to the side.

The closely related species Rivina humilis L.

(Phytolaccaceae), which is known as coralillo,

colorines, or hierba mora,278 is said to be identical

to the Aztec narcotic amatlaxiotl (Diaz 1979, 93*).

Psychoactive Material


Preparation and Dosage

Both the manner(s) in which the root should be

prepared for psychoactive use and the dosage that

should be used have not come down to us. It is

possible that the root was used as an additive in

the production of sake, for the few sources do

mention a "brewed" preparation.

In Nepal, the young, tender leaves and stalks

are cooked and eaten as vegetables (MalIa 1982,

193). This use is the source of the German name

for the leaves, kermesbeerspinat ("kermes berry


Ritual Use

In ancient China, the root was placed into the

same category as ginseng (Panax ginseng) and

mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). The root also was used as a substitute for belladonna root

(Atropa belladonna) (Emboden 1986, 164*).

T'ao Hung-ching reported that the plant "is

used by the Taoists. When it is boiled or brewed

and consumed, it is good for lower abdominal

parasites and to see spirits" (Li 1979,22*). Su Sung

wrote, «In olden times, it was used a great deal by

the magicians [= shamans]" (Li 1979, 22*). Su

Ching provides more precise information:

There are two forms of this medicine, one red

and one white. The white kind is used in the

healing arts. The red kind can be used to

conjure spirits; it is very toxic. Otherwise, it

can be used only externally for inflammations.

If eaten, it is very terrible: it causes bloody

stools. It can be lethal. It causes one to see

spirits. (Li 1979,22*)

Unfortunately, nothing more is known about

any shamanic or alchemical use of the plant.

The plant is depicted on Tibetan medicine

thangkas (Aris 1992, 79, 235*).Medicinal Use

In traditional Chinese medicine, the roots of

shang lu (Phytolacca acinosa Roxb. var. esculenta

Maxim.) are used to treat tumors, edema, and

bronchitis (Yeung et al. 1987; Yi 1992). In Asian

folk medicine, the roots are especially esteemed

for their anti-inflammatory and antirheumatic


In Tibetan medicine, the roots are attributed

with cooling qualities. They are utilized as an

antidote, to treat chronic fever, and to treat the pain of wounds. Nepalese Sherpas use a paste

made from the roots as a potent purgative to treat

food poisoning (Bhattarai 1989,51*).


The roots of Phytolacca acinosa Roxb. var.

esculenta Maxim. have been found to contain

various saponins (esculentoside-I, esculentosideN,

phytolaccagenin derivatives) (Yi 1992). The

triterpenes phytolaccagenin and acinospesigenin

have been detected in the leaves (Spengel and

Schaffner 1990). The fruits have yielded acids of

the 28,30-dicarboxy-oleanene type and its ester

(Spenge1 et al. 1992). The triterpenoids acinosolic

acid, phytolaccagenin (empirical formula

C31H4007)' phytolaccagenic acid, esculentic acid,

jaligonic acid, phytolaccagenin-A, and acinosolic

acids A and B have also been identified (Harkar et

al. 1984).

Proteins with abortifacient effects occur in the

roots, leaves, and seeds (Yeung et al. 1987).

The species Phytolacca bogotensis H.B.K.,

which is toxic to cattle, has been found to contain

cyanoglycosides (Schultes 1977b, III *).


Apart from the ancient Chinese sources, according

to which the use of shang lu "enables one to see

spirits" (i.e., is hallucinogenic), there are no

reports of psychoactive experiences.

Sedative effects are possible, as other species in

the genus are used for narcotic purposes. The

Kofcin Indians of Colombia produce a fish poison

from the leaves of Phytolacca rivinoides Kunth et

Bouche and the leaves of a Phyllanthus species

(Schultes 1977b, 112*).

The saponins (triterpene aglycones) that are

present in the roots of the genus have immuneenhancing,

anti-inflammatory, and molluscicide

effects (Parkhurst et al. 1990; Yi 1992).

Commercial Forms and Regulations

Because the bush is highly regarded as a beautiful

ornamental, its seeds are occasionally available

from seed suppliers and flower shops.


Barbieri, L., G. M. Aron, J. D. Irvin, and F. Stirpe.

1982. Purification and partial characterization of

another form of the antiviral protein from the

seeds of Phytolacca americana 1. (Pokeweed).

Biochemical Journal 203:55-59.

Harkar, S., T. K. Razdan, and E. S. Waight. 1984.

Further triterpenoids and l3C NMR spectra of

oleanane derivatives from Phytolacca acinosa.

Phytochemistry 23 (12): 2893-98.

MalIa, Samar Bahadur, ed. 1982. Wild edible plants of

Nepal. Bulletin no. 9. Kathmandu: Department of

Medicinal Plants.

Parkhurst, Robert M., David W. Thomas, Robert P.

Adams, Lydia P. Makhubu, Brian M. Mthupha, 1.

Wolde-Yohannes, Ephraim Mama, George E.

Heath, Janeen K. Strobaeus, and William O.

Jones. 1990. Triterpene aglycones from various

Phytolacca dodecandra populations.

Phytochemistry 29 (4): 1171-74.

Spengel, Sigrid, St. Luterbacher, and Willi Schaffner.

1992. Phytolaccagenin and phytolaccagenic acid

from berries, roots, leaves, and calli of Phytolacca

dodecandra. Planta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A684.

Spengel, Sigrid, and Willi Schaffner. 1990.

Acinospesigenin-ein neues Triterpen aus den

Bhittern von Phytolacca acinosa. Planta Medica


Woo, W. S. 1978. The chemistry and pharmacology of

Phytolacca plants. Seoul: Natural Product

Research Institute, Seoul Natural University.

Yeung, H. W., Z. Feng, W. W. Li, W. K. Cheung, and

T. B. Ng. 1987. Abortifacient activity in leaves,

roots and seeds of Phytolacca acinosa. Journal of

Ethnopharmacology 21:31-35.

Yi, Yang-Hua. 1992. Two new saponins from the

roots of Phytolacca esculenta. Planta Medica


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