Saturday, August 18, 2018

Poke Weed & Politics

There's little doubt what that large plant is.
Poke Weed
The quilt was made by Elizabeth Currier Foster whose family called it Poke Stalk.
From the Oregon Project and the Quilt Index

Block from a sampler in the collection of the Shelburne Museum
"Poke Berries" it says.


It's a hardy American weed.
The bluish-black berries grow on a red stem. They make a fast natural dye and although the plant is poisonous people have been using it for herbal medicine for generations.

An 1818 botanical painting from Barton's Vegetable Material Medica
showing the poke berry, the flower and the leaf.

The leaf is simple.

From an online auction, made in Tennessee.

From Joyce Gross's collection at University of Texas, Briscoe Center.

From a sampler, no dots.

Next to an eagle

Colonial Williamsburg has 2 applique samplers with pokeweed blocks.

This one dated 1844 to 1847 was made for 
Reverend & Mrs. William George Eggleston.
The block with the pokeberries is signed E. R. Moore, Ellicotts Mills (Maryland)

Quilt inscribed "To Emma"

The other has four eagle blocks with the words E Pluribus Unum above each eagle
and the Lord's Prayer in the center.

There may be more than just a desire to applique a lot of dots in these mid-19th century examples. Pokeweed had political symbolism in the 1844 Presidential election in which Democrat James K. Polk beat Whig Henry Clay.

Polk's Dream, a cartoon from the election.
In the lower right a potted POKE plant

But not what a pokeweed plant looks like.

Poke in a time of variable spelling seemed like a good symbol for the candidate from Tennessee. Fanny Crosby published memoirs in 1906 in which she recalled writing poetry in favor of Polk:
"A thousand thanks to thee, good Mr. Chase,
This poke-weed garland on my brow I'll place.
If I this moment Mr. Polk could see
Quickly an office I'd obtain for thee. "
Apparently Polk partisans wore garlands of the berries (a messy concept.) There are stories that Polk supporters wore a branch on their lapels (another laundry problem) and that pro-Polk drovers stained their oxen with the berries, while Clay supporters rubbed clay on their oxen's horns.

Hand painted political banner for the Whig candidates depicting
coons, the Whig symbol raccoons, eating poke berries.

The Whig banner was sold at Heritage Americana in 2005.

During the election Mississippi politician Jefferson Davis wrote about being berated by a "Whig lady [who] gave me quite a political lecture warning me against the stain of poke berries," a slightly oblique reference to the Democratic candidate.

I have seen discussion that this common design known variously as Poinsettia or Coxcombs & Currants is also a Poke Berry design favoring Polk. The pattern, however, seems to date from the 1850s. Below are two early date-inscribed examples.

Quilt dated 1852 by __ Dixon, Indiana Project & the Quilt Index

Quilt dated 1853 by Elizabeth Stark Whitlow, Ohio or Indiana.
Collection of the Kansas Museum of History.

Quilt for Reverend Dix, western Virginia,
West Virginia project & the Quilt Index

Many of the applique blocks that look like poke berries do not have poke's simple leaves. The branch above might be a bunch of grapes, except grapes don't really grown like that in single file along the stems.

Grapes from Johann Weinmann's 1745 illustration

From Cowhollow Antiques

Grapes are such an important classical image that many
of these botanical blocks may indeed depict grapes

as in this border from a feathered star quilt found in the Indiana project.


From an online auction


  1. You always have the most interesting information. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I tried the 2 links for the Williamsburg quilts. I reached their database, but not the quilts.

  3. being an extreme berry making quilter, I loved this article about the poke berry. I see them on my walks in CT.
    thanks Barbara for such fascinating information and inspiring photos!

  4. Laura---the links shifted to other items I guess. I took them out. Sorry.

  5. These are such lovely quilts and viewing the Williamsburg quilts will keep me on line. My brothers and I used to make and wear pokeberry 'war paint'. For the last half century I have enjoyed carefully gathered and prepared poke greens as a spring vegetable. So being familiar with the plant I may suggest that either some of the quilt artists were not working from nature or they were depicting plants other than poke. Barton's print shows a correct specimen but not the drooping habit of the bunch of ripe berries.
    The two gorgeous Williamsburg quilts and the sampler before it appear to have amaranth flowers --love lies bleeding. As others have suggested, the once almost universally grown currants would have been popular subjects, the Rev. Dix and the last two quilts show the leaf and fruit pattern distinctly. If the 'Botanizing' example was originally green, gooseberries are a possibility, too. Currants are members of the gooseberry family. What I'm really fascinated with is the question of what the Tennessee vine quilter was thinking.

    Oh, I'd never heard of the Polk and Clay "memes". Thank you.

  6. Yes, I looked at all quilts in the collection....I noticed #57 Carr applique has a current border and #119 Eggleston Sig. Album has an love-lies-bleeding applique in the twelfth square. Enjoyment of heirloom plants/gardens links well with the old patterns. One of the amaranth family with a robust flower has "prince's feather" as one of the common names. That might account for some of the rather strange prince's feather applique?

  7. Thanks to all for the comments, and to Barbara for a very interesting article!