Pokeberry Ink and the Constitution

A copy of the original Declaration of Independence. The other is faded. Check out the story below as to why that might be.

By Race Opell

The Declaration of Independence was reportedly written in fermented Pokeberry Ink. Aside from its age, that could explain the fading of the document. Pokeberry ink will fade as it is exposed to light.

Freshly made Pokeberry ink has the loud purple color of the raw crushed berry juice, but fades to a non-descript brown with age. The fermentation process keeps the fresh ink from rotting.

I found some Pokeberry ink how-to instructions in books at my local library. One of the recipes uses only a dab of vinegar and some salt. While vinegar is corrosive to metal, it seems to be stored well in a tightly closed lidded glass jar.

When I was a kid, I would crush up the berries, add a little water, and paint away. beware though it will stain your hands, clothes and pretty much anything else it comes in contract with. Most stains, though, are easily removed with detergent and hot water.

For anyone unfamiliar with Pokeberries, these are the fruit clusters of the so-called Poke Salet (Salad) plant, the young shoots of which some folks eat in the spring. The berries begin to ripen in mid-summer, and continue until the autumn frost. Adult plants are inedible, and can grow to 6-7 feet tall by season’s end. 

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Here’s a recipe for anyone serious about making the ink, and not just doodling around with it for an afternoon.

– ½ pound (8 ounces) of ripe Pokeberries. Select only the ripest jet-black berries that are ready to fall, or have already fallen. The berries are toxic to eat, so watch the kids. They also stain skin and clothing, although I have been able to remove those stains with detergent.

– 1 packet of yeast. 

– Two 20-ounce plastic soft drink/water bottles rinsed and dried, with the plastic labels cut away. Keep one cap.

– A large, clean cloth.

– A coffee filter.

– A stout rubber band.

– Rubber gloves

– A funnel or syringe (the syringes in printer ink cartridge refill kits are ideal)

– A large bowl

1. Wash the Pokeberries in water to remove any dirt, bugs and spider web silk. The things are toxic, so be careful not to leave them unattended around children… the things do resemble small grapes. Place the Pokeberries in one of the plastic bottles, which will fill about half the bottle’s volume. Cap the bottle tightly and violently agitate the bottle until all the Pokeberries are mashed. The bottle will then be about 1/4th full. 

2. Add an entire packet of yeast to the bottle. Re-cap and shake the bottle a few more times to thoroughly mix the yeast particles. Remove the cap, and place the small piece of cloth over the mouth of the bottle, secured in place with the rubber band. 

3. Leave the bottle undisturbed and away from direct light at room temperature for 24 hours for fermentation to complete. Although the smell isn’t entirely unpleasant to most noses, you may want to find a place other than the dining room to place the bottle.

4. After the allotted time, strain the contents of the bottle through the large cloth into the bowl. Using the rubber gloves, squeeze the cloth to extract all the liquid you can into the bowl. Discard the cloth and its contents. The liquid in the bowl is your yet-unfiltered ink.

5. Fold the coffee filter several times vertically so that it will fit into the narrow neck of the second plastic bottle. Stuff the filter into the mouth of the second bottle, leaving enough of the filter top exposed to secure with the rubber band around the neck. The filter will be almost completely inside the second plastic bottle. Use a finger to gently expand the opening of the coffee filter.

6. Using the funnel or syringe (or whatever you have), transfer the ink from the bowl into the coffee filter that is strapped to the second plastic bottle, topping off as necessary until all the ink has been transferred. Be patient… as the filter clogs, the drip will slow down, and it will take several hours for all the ink to filter through. Do not squeeze or apply pressure to the filter, as it will certainly rupture. This part requires patience.

7. Store the filtered in a dark place after you have transferred it to an inkbottle of your choice. Old, empty inkbottles work well. The ink should store well with no evidence of mold formation or other signs of rot.

The process described above is similar to wine making, with one important difference… you are not going to drink the ink. You’ll be making beautiful artful creations.

The Pokeberry ink fermentation occurs quickly because the only sugar available for conversion is that found naturally in the berry. Plus, we are overfeeding yeast to such a small Pokeberry mixture. 

Within 30 minutes of adding the yeast, the Pokeberry mixture will double in volume due to the rapid, near explosive yeast action. At maximum action, the mixture will be near the top of the bottle! be sure to measure the ½ pound of Pokeberries carefully. Fermentation will complete in no more than 24 hours. The Pokeberry mixture will return to its original non-yeasted volume, and the berry skins will be seen floating on the surface. All bubbling and foaming will have ceased, and the berry mixture will have a positively “dead” appearance. 

Can the fermented Pokeberry Ink be used safely in fountain pens without damage? It is easier to a quill to keep dipping it into the ink, rather than filling a fountain pen. Contaminants can clog a fountain pen. Plus the quill is likely what the signers of the Declaration of Independence used.

As I have no social media of my own, that’s a story for later, comment on the post, and let me know if you’ve tried making Pokeberry ink. I’d love to hear the results.

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