Poke Root (Shang Lu)

PhytolaccaAs the name implies, the medicinal part of poke root, also known as Shang Lu in Pinyin, is its root. The medicinal uses of pokeroot has a long history in Chinese herbal medicine and dates back as far back as 2,000 years ago since it has been listed in the “Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic.” And Ben Cao Gang Mu (The Compendium of Materia Medica) also comments that it has a descending medicinal properties that makes it resemble Jing Da Ji (Euphorbia pekinensis) and Gan Sui (Euphorbia Kansui), which are an expert of controlling water metabolism. So, what is poke root good for today? Clinically it is still widely used in the treatment of mastitis (breast infection), breast cancer, lymph, thyroid, boils, scabies, edema, hot sores, lung disorders, swellings, fibroids, arthritis, clogged ducts, breast lumps, poison ivy, and so on.

What is poke root?

Medicinally it mainly refers to the dried root of Phytolacca acinosa Roxb. or Phytolacca americana L., which are two members of Pokeweed family (Phytolaccaceae). Hence, other common names of this herb include common pokeweed, red ink plant, Virginia poke, poke salad, American nightshade, poke sallet, cancer jalap, poke berry or pokeberry, coakum, poke, garget, inkberry, pocan, cancer root, pokeweed, pigeon berry, Radix Phytolaccae, redweed, Phytolacca acinosa root, scoke, Chui Xu Shang Lu, and more. It is produced in most parts of China, in particular in Henan, Anhui, and Hubei provinces. It is harvested from autumn to following spring, sliced, dried in the sun or in the shade, and used raw or rice-vinegar processed medicinally.

Phytolacca acinosa is a perennial herb, up to 1.5 meter. The whole plant is glabrous. Root is stout, conical, fleshy, and with yellowish skin, long horizontal lenticels, and many lateral roots. Stems are green or purplish red and multi-branched. Leaves are alternate and petiolate; base of the handle is slightly flat and wide; blade is ovate-elliptic or oval, 12 to 15cm long, 5 to 8cm wide, and with acute or acuminate apex, attenuate base, and entire margin. Racemes are on the top of branches or on the sides of stems; inflorescences are upright; tepals are 5, white in the beginning and light red later; stamens are 8 to 10; carpels are 8 to 10, separate, but close together. Poke root berries are oblate, mulberry or black when ripe, and with persistent calyx. Seeds are kidney-shaped and black. Bloom and fruiting time is from May to October. Habitats are roadside woodland or gardens.

Phytolacca americana looks like Phytolacca acinosa. However, its stem is purple; edges are more obvious; blades are usually slightly narrower; racemes are drooping; stamens and carpels are usually 10 in number; bloom time is from July to August and fruiting time is from August to October; habitats are forests, roadside and sheltered places adjacent to the house.

Phytolacca acinosa contains esculentoside, esculentic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, jaligonic acid (demethyl phaytolaccagenin), phytolaccagenin, esculentagenicacid, esculentagenin, γ-aminobutyric acid, α-spinasterol, palmitic acid, stearic acid, myristic acid, 6′-palmityl-α-spinasteryl-β-D-glucoside, 2-ethyl-1-hexanol, dibutyl phthalate, ethyl palmitate, zonarol, ethyl oleate, tetradecyl palmitate, and more. Phytolacca americana contains Phytolaccasaponin G, esculentoside E, Phytolaccasaponin B, phytolaccagenin, 3-oxo-30-carbomethoxy-23-norolean-12-en-28-oic acid, esculentic acid, phytolaccagenic acid, oleanolic acid, pipecolinic acid, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, citrulline, γ-glutamylhisitidine, γ-aminobutyric acid, histamine, phytolaccatoxin, xanthomicrol, PAP-R (pokeweed antiviral protein from roots), pokeweed antifungal protein R1, R2, mitogen, and the like.

Poke root benefits

As a traditionally used Chinese herb, it is categorized as a drastically purgating water drug and commonly used in the treatment of all kinds of excess edema. Pharmacological studies suggest that pokeroot has an amazing therapeutic effect for many diseases, such as glomerular sclerosis, nephrotic syndrome, diabetic nephropathy, and other secondary kidney damage due to immune system disorders. And modern pharmacology believes that its main chemical constituent of esculentoside can reduce inflammation, induce γ-interferon, enhance leukocyte phagocytosis, promote DNA transformation, prevent impregnation, and kill soncomelania. As a matter of fact, it can do more as follows.

Modern pharmacological actions of pokeroot

1) It has a significant expectorant effect;
2) Its alkaloids have antitussive effect;
3) Poke root extract has a diuretic effect. And studies have shown that the diuretic effect is dose-related – low dose increases the flow of urine while large dose decreases urine output;
4) Its extract has different degrees of inhibition on Shigella, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae and some skin fungi.

Sample poke root recipe on herbal remedies

The Chinese Materia Medica thinks that it is bitter in flavor and cold and toxic in nature. It goes to meridians of spleen, bladder, and small intestine. Main functions are relieving edema through diuresis, increasing urinary and stool output, resolving toxin and dissipating binds. Basic poke root uses and indications include puffiness caused by edema, difficult urination and bowel movement, abdominal mass, abdominal mass in left or right hypochondrium, scrofula, and carbuncle. Recommended poke root dosage is from 3 to 10 grams in decoction. Besides, there are many other pokeroot forms available too, such as poke root tea, extract, tincture, essential oil, salve, cream, infused oil, juice, ointment, lotion, powder, and more.

1) Shang Lu Dou Fang from Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence). It is coupled with Chi Xiao Dou (Adzuki Beans) and carp to treat edema accompanied with breathing rapidly and shortness of breath.

2) Shang Lu San from Yang Shi Jia Cang Fang (Yang Family Depository of Formulas). It is combined with Euphorbia Kansui powder and mole cricket to cure ten types of edema.

3) Shu Zuo Yin Zi from Ji Sheng Fang (Life-saving prescriptions). It is formulated with Ze Xie (Water Plantain), Adzuki Beans, Qiang Huo (Notopterygium), Da Fu Pi (Areca Peel), Jiao Mu (Zanthoxyli Semen), etc. to heal edema that is characterized as whole body swelling, dyspnea and tachypnea, irritation and thirst, and difficult bowel movement and urination.

4) Shang Lu San from Complete Record of Holy Benevolence. It is matched with Dang Gui (Dong Quai), Zi Wei (campsis grandiflora), and Pu Huang (cattails) to treat unbearable postpartum pain due to blood clot attacking heart and abdomen.

Clinical research of poke

According to reports, pokeroot-based herbal formulas can also treat a variety of diseases, including breast hyperplasia, gastrointestinal bleeding and thrombocytopenia purpura, kidney stones, chronic bronchitis, psoriasis, snake bites, etc.

a) Pokeweed tablets have ever been used to treat breast hyperplasia and the total effective rate was 94.86%;

b) Pokeweed decoction had a better effect on the treatment of thrombocytopenia purpura and gastrointestinal bleeding. More importantly, no toxic response was found during the treatment;

c) 2 cases of kidney stones has ever been treated with the pokeweed-based decoction in combination with Ji Nei Jin (Chicken Gizzard’s Lining) 50g and Hu Po (Amber) 20g, 3 times a day. And the decoction consists of pokeweed 10g, Shi Jian Chuan (Herba Salviae Chinensis) 15g, Fu Hai Shi (pumice stone) 10g, Hai Jin Sha (Lygodium) 20g, Huang Qin (Scutellaria) 20g, and Jin Qian Cao (Gold Coin Grass) 50g. And both cases were cured.

Poke root side effects and contraindications

Poke root is considered toxic. As a result, improper use or overdose can cause poisoning. Generally 20 minutes to 3 hours after this herb is taken there then comes the poisoning symptoms, including mild to moderate elevated body temperature, rapid heartbeat, breathing frequently, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea; followed by dizziness, headache, slurred speech, delirious speech, restlessness, staggering, convulsions, trance, and even coma, dilated pupils, absence or decreased pupillary reaction to light, knee hyperreflexia, and incontinence. The time needed from delirium to soberness varies from person to person and ranges from 11 to 31 hours. Large dose of pokeroot can result in central nervous paralysis, respiratory dyskinesia, hypotension, cardiac paralysis, and even death. And it may increase the risk of miscarriage if taken during pregnancy. So, it shouldn’t be used during breastfeeding and pregnancy. In terms of mild gastrointestinal reactions, they may disappear on their own 3 to 5 days later. But symptomatic therapy is highly recommended. Here is a popular folk remedy that works – smash 30 to 60 grams of raw licorice root and green beans and then soak them with boiling water or decoct them for the decoction.


a) Zhong Cao Yao (The Chinese Herbal Medicine), 1985;3:22;
b) Hu Bei Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Zi Liao Hui Bian (Hubei Provine Collection of Scientific Papers on Integrated TCM and Western Medicine), 1970;62-64; Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Modern Developments in Traditional Medicine), 1987;10:127;
c) Ji Lin Zhong Yi Yao (Jilin Chinese Medicine & Medicinals), 1987;1:27.

4 thoughts on “Poke Root (Shang Lu)

  1. Amarildo

    Very Very useful information..
    It needs hundreds and hundreds of years to come to know so much about a such special plant, I was wondering our ancestors experimenting with all those hearbs for food and medicine. How many heros died before learn about the right dosis and what NOT to eat.

    1. Turiya

      Some people have the power not only to speak to plants, but to hear the plants’ responses. The person wise in the ways of plants would sit with the new plant and learn all about it before anyone ever tasted it. Your insight into this shows you may be such a person.

  2. Marilyn

    My parents and grandparents cooked poke salad or poke Sallet every year. No one every got sick or died from eating the the dish. However, wE never prepared the roots or used the berries. We were told as children that the plant was not to be eaten when it turned purple and not to eat the berries.

    And actually that was a lot of preparation and preparing the leaves to be eaten by the family.

  3. Alex

    I discovered Pokeweed early in my herbal experiments. As crazy as it sounds, I found it and mistook it for nettles (looks nothing like it). I made teas and found that I was shedding a lot of water weight. Weeks later I discovered that it was actually pokeweed and by all accounts I should have been dead. I quickly realized that many great herbs or derivatives (dmso) are labeled dangerous for no reason. Today, I sautéed the young leaves like spinach (no presoak or preboil) and have been doing so for years. They taste wonderful. I readily swallow the berries and even put some in some vodka for a nice evening drink (also can be used as tincture) that I take on occasion. Anyway, I’ve even made tinctures from the root and drank it with no issues.


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