The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Phytolacca acinosa Roxburgh


Pokeweed, Shang Lu




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-lu, 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 cm. 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*).279

In contrast to Phytolacca americanaPhytolacca 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 coralillocolorines, or hierba mora,280 is said to be identical to the Aztec narcotic amatlaxiotl (Díaz 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 (Malla 1982, 193). This use is the source of the German name for the leaves, kermesbeerspinat (“kermes berry spinach”).

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 typical infructescence of pokeweed (Phytolacca acinosa), the root of which was used in ancient China for psychoactive purposes.



The flower of American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a plant that Indians used for many purposes, including as a narcotic.


“Plant [Phytolacca acinosa] said to have narcotic properties, and produces a bitter toxic substance. The leaves make an excellent pot-herb if well-boiled.”








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 effects.

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, esculentoside-N, 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 (Spengel et al. 1992). The triterpenoids acinosolic acid, phytolaccagenin (empirical formula C31H40O7), 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, 111*).



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 Kofán Indians of Colombia produce a fish poison from the leaves of Phytolacca rivinoides Kunth et Bouché and the leaves of a Phyllanthus species (Schultes 1977b, 112*).

The saponins (triterpene aglycones) that are present in the roots of the genus have immune-enhancing, 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.


Shang lu (Phytolacca acinosa), a Chinese magical and medicinal plant that is related to pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), as depicted in the herbal Chêng-lei pên-ts’ao (1249 C.E.).


“The [shang lu] flowers—Ch’anghau’—are esteemed for treating apoplexy. The root is so poisonous that it is normally used only externally.”






(1992, 54*)




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 L. (Pokeweed). Biochemical Journal 203:55–59.


Harkar, S., T. K. Razdan, and E. S. Waight. 1984. Further triterpenoids and 13C NMR spectra of oleanane derivatives from Phytolacca acinosaPhytochemistry 23 (12): 2893–98.


Malla, 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, L. Wolde-Yohannes, Ephraim Mamo, 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 dodecandraPlanta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A684.


Spengel, Sigrid, and Willi Schaffner. 1990. Acinospesigenin—ein neues Triterpen aus den Blättern von Phytolacca acinosaPlanta Medica 56:284–86.


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 acinosaJournal of Ethnopharmacology 21:31–35.


Yi, Yang-Hua. 1992. Two new saponins from the roots of Phytolacca esculentaPlanta Medica 58:99–101.