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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
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
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
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*).
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
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 aboutany 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
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
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
Yi, Yang-Hua. 1992. Two new saponins from the
roots of Phytolacca esculenta. Planta Medica58:99-101.