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Making Fermented Pokeberry Ink


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#1 mnpd

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 01:31

Fermented Pokeberry Ink Manufacture

The Declaration of Independence was reportedly written in fermented Pokeberry Ink. 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 seems necessary to preserve the unused ink. Raw, unprocessed ink literally rots and molds. The fermentation process does for the ink what wine does for grape juice… preservation.

I found some Pokeberry ink “recipes” on the ‘Net, but none that use the fermentation that I suspect is crucial in making in ink that has good shelf life. One of the recipes uses only a dab of vinegar and some salt. I don’t know how well the vinegar preserves the ink, but do know that vinegar is corrosive to metal, so I passed on that process. 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.

After several failed tries, I think I finally succeeded in producing the authentic product. For those who are interested, the process described here makes about 3 ounces of what I believe to be quality and well preserved ink. The yield varies depending on the quality of the Pokeberries, and the losses of the straining and filtering process. Please remember that the following process works for me, but it may not work at all for someone else. This is simply my personal experience, and I am by no stretch a maker of inks. I have also made unintended messes making this stuff, usually when I mashed the berries. It was a much cleaner operation once I learned that that I could crush the Pokeberries simply by agitating them in a sealed container.

- 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.

Discussion of the Process

The process described above is similar to wine making, with one important difference... you are not going to drink the ink. This single fact considerably simplifies the Pokeberry fermentation process.

First, you will not be adding sugar as you do in winemaking. Sugar provides more food for the yeast organisms, producing the desired higher alcohol content… something not necessary for ink. While the fermentation process for wine takes at least a couple of weeks, 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! So, please 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.

The fermentation process occurs when the yeast bacteria consume the natural sugars in the fruit, which is converted to alcohol. The by-product of this fermentation process is carbon dioxide gas, which is the reason the fermentation bottle is covered only by a porous cloth. Remember not to cap the fermentation bottle… it will burst from the gas buildup, and the less you know about the resultant mess, the better you’ll sleep at night! Please don’t blame me if a divorce results. 

Using the Finished Ink

Can the fermented Pokeberry Ink be used safely in fountain pens without damage? I don’t know, but I’m trying it! I emptied a disposable Pilot Varsity pen, flushed it, and refilled it with the filtered ink. I’ve been doing most of my writing with this pen. So far, the feed hasn’t clogged, but the ink seems a bit hard to start after the pen has been capped for a day or two. A quick couple of shakes gets the ink going again. At this point I don’t recommend using the ink in any fountain pen of value. For those who try it, I would appreciate some feedback on your experience. It is possible that this ink may be suited for only quill or dip pens.

Neither the raw or finished ink is permanent, and either can be washed from skin and clothing using detergent. The ink’s permanence characteristic reminds me of the washable Pelikan inks I have used in the past.

The fermented Pokeberry ink shows no tendency to feather, or to bleed through paper. It dries on paper as quickly as most commercial inks, and lubricates the nib adequately. If I handed you the Varsity pen to write with without telling you what was in the barrel, your only comment would probably be about the loud purple color. The ink's density on paper compares favorably with other colored inks. Overall, the ink seems well-behaved.

Finally, the color itself. I've been able to artifically age the ink by leaving the inked paper in direct sunlight for a day. The ink turned orange. Ink written on composition book paper which is kept in the dark hasn’t shown a color shift in several weeks. I don’t know how much time is required before the ink turns to brown, but it seems that exposure to light can be responsible for at least some of the aging.

Edited by mnpd, 23 August 2009 - 02:04.


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#2 ZeissIkon

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 04:59

Very nice process description! Unfortunately, every time I try to grow enough poke salet to do anything with, the landlord chops it all down, and the birds eat the berries (apparently non-toxic to flying dinosaur offshoots) off the few plants that do last long enough to fruit.

Tempting to wonder if the dark color of the berries, like that of dark grapes, is due (in whole or in part) to tannic acid, and/or what the toxin is in the berries (if it's oxalic acid, for instance, as in rhubarb leaves, it could be converted to a metallic oxalate with good permanence); the ink on the Declaration is still legible, if somewhat faded, after more than two centuries, suggesting there's more there than just a vegetable dye. Cooking the ink in an iron pot could, if there's a high level of tannin present, have resulted in an ink with similar properties to iron-gall formulae (that is, after the purple faded, you'd be left with the oxidation mark from the reaction of iron tannate with the paper).

Edit: Okay, a quick Google shows that the toxins are phytolaccotoxin and pytolaccogenin, both names I don't recognize, but it's also claimed that the berries can be eaten if properly prepared (so can taro root, which contains cyanide, so I won't be trying it). Still worth checking if the berry juice has enough tannin to make a more permanent ink.

Edited by ZeissIkon, 23 August 2009 - 05:04.

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#3 psfred

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 14:29

The Declaration of Independence, is, of course, written in iron/gall ink, as all permanent documents were at the time. Fermenting poke berries will add some alcohol (which you could provide by tipping in some denatured alcohol) and probably adds some glycerol that acts as a nice flow modifier (no feathering, smooth writing).

I don't think you will make the ink any more resistant to fading, though, unless you add some iron to react with the tannins and make ferro-gallic ink.

Pokeberry in was quite common in the early days of the US, but everyone knew it faded badly. Iron gall ink was well known, and anyone interested in permanence would have used it instead, or added the green copperas to the pokeberry ink to make it iron gall.

Peter

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#4 twincityskyline

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 14:55

Very cool experiment! I enjoyed reading this post! :thumbup:
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#5 mnpd

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 20:24

I don't know what ink was used on official documents back in the 16th Century, but lots of references state that the "inkberry" was used on the Declaration. It does make more sense that people would have used the iron gall ink instead, which was available. I've seen references claiming that the inkberry was used as late as the 1860's to write Confederate correspondence, no doubt because of blockade shortages. I'm no chemist, although my brother is, who does corporate research and development work. I need to call him up and ask if simply adding denatured alcohol to the Pokeberries would fully substitute for actual fermentation. I hope so, since it would certainly uncomplicate the process and make less mess.

Sorry you don't have access to a ready supply of the berries, ZeissIkon. I let several pokeweed plants grow and mature just off the rear house deck. I can collect the berries just by walking barefoot out the back door. :) Growing up in the South, and eating Poke while growing up, everyone who cooked it always said that the plant was poisonous. The young shoots in April were collected and pre-boiled/strained several times before being fried in a skillet with bacon grease and eggs. The mature purple stalks could also be cut into short lengths, "para-boiled", strained, battered and fried in the manner of okra.

If looking for the Pokeberries this time of year, disturbed soil is the best place. Anywhere a bulldozer has been leaving bare earth is a sure place for new Poke to sprout up. The berries have been maturing for some time here, and will continue to mature until the frost hits in a couple of months. I enjoyed the experimentation in making ink, and wanted to share with anyone else who might have the same interest.

#6 ZeissIkon

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 20:43

I'm no chemist, although my brother is, who does corporate research and development work. I need to call him up and ask if simply adding denatured alcohol to the Pokeberries would fully substitute for actual fermentation. I hope so, since it would certainly uncomplicate the process and make less mess.


Probably not. The fermentation preserves the berry juice as much by removing the sugars that would be primary food for bacteria as by adding alcohol (since I think it very unlikely you produce enough alcohol to make the mix antiseptic; yeast won't tolerate more than 14% and antiseptics are generally 30% or stronger). Add enough alcohol to prevent spoilage and you'll risk damaging pens that are made of materials incompatible with alcohol (which is most of them), though the ink would still be usable with a dip pen.

I think it very unlikely that an ink well known to fade would be used on what the Founding Fathers considered an important document, though it's very possible it was used for day to day applications. However, as noted, the color of the berries strongly implies a high tannin content (as does the ink turning orange in the sun -- the purple fades, but orange tannin doesn't, or fades much more slowly), so simply adding some copperas to the fermented ink would convert it to a much more permanent type, and the purple color would serve to make it easier to see the writing while waiting for the oxidation color to appear.
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#7 psfred

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Posted 24 August 2009 - 00:47

Also, if you ferment the berries in an iron pot, guess what? Ferro-gallate ink! Or more likely, add a few rusty nails.

I may have to try this, as pokeberries are hardly uncommon around here....

Peter

Edited by psfred, 24 August 2009 - 00:48.


#8 ZeissIkon

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Posted 24 August 2009 - 01:43

Also, if you ferment the berries in an iron pot, guess what? Ferro-gallate ink! Or more likely, add a few rusty nails.

I may have to try this, as pokeberries are hardly uncommon around here....

Peter


Fermenting in an iron pot may or may not work; fermentation is usually carried out in glass or copper, which I understand to be because yeast doesn't like iron.
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#9 mnpd

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 04:08

Well, don't put this stuff into a fountain pen. I may be the alcohol as you say. It took a week, but the seals deteriorated and the Varsity pen starting pouring ink around the feed. So, looks like it's gonna be dip pen perfect! smile.gif

#10 LedZepGirl

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 04:26

How do you do non fermented? I need some bright purple ink and there's a load of those plants near my house.
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#11 marpin

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 08:30

You could just follow the fermentation procedure then evaporate the alcohol off. Personally I'd also check the pH to make sure some other bugs didn't get in and acidify the ink.

Alternatively, and with more mess and experimentation, it may be possible to make a crude preparation of the pokeberry pigment itself. I've no idea what the chemicals responsible are, so can't offer any suggestions on how to go about the preparation; sorry.

#12 linuxchiq

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 14:37

Pokeberry is also used as a dye for wool. Water and vinegar are added to the mashed berries, which are then allowed to ferment for a couple of days. After straining, the dye is added to a pot of simmering (160 deg. F) water, with more vinegar, and the wool. This gives a bright red. However, if the pH gets above 7 it becomes a bluish gray (you also lose the red if it gets too hot). Either way it fades to tan when exposed to bright sunlight.

Not sure if any of this is interesting to pen folk, but the relationship between color and pH may suggest further experiments. ^_^

#13 psfred

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 22:30

Fermentations are not done in iron because the resulting metallic taste is horrible. Needless to say, that's exactly what's wanted for ferro-gallate ink....

Peter, who had a batch of cider acquire a horrible iron taste from the ancient cider press we had last year.



#14 ZeissIkon

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 23:49

QUOTE (psfred @ Aug 27 2009, 06:30 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Fermentations are not done in iron because the resulting metallic taste is horrible. Needless to say, that's exactly what's wanted for ferro-gallate ink....

Peter, who had a batch of cider acquire a horrible iron taste from the ancient cider press we had last year.


Aha! So, fermenting pokeberry ink in a cast iron pot might, possibly, give a more permanent ink (and will surely render the pot used no longer fit for cooking -- who knows what it might take to get the pokeberry toxins out of the porous iron?) -- except that, based on another post above, the pokeberry dye changing from red to blue-gray if the solution becomes acidic suggests that the dye is more akin to litmus than to tannin. I think I'll stick to black tea (even if I could harvest enough pokeberries from my back yard to make enough ink to bother).

Edited by ZeissIkon, 27 August 2009 - 23:50.

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#15 hbquikcomjamesl

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 00:21

I remember years ago, watching The Woodwright's Shop, host Roy Underhill talked about using pokeberry juice instead of chalk on a snap-line.

As to taro root, that's what the Hawaiians make poi out of.

Then again, when I went to Hawaii in 2005, I never tried poi. The only Hawaiian delicacy I could get past my nose was spam musubi. With the nori removed (to my palate, nori tastes like grass clippings!)

Several common kinds of beans are also toxic if uncooked. They contain phytohemagglutinin.

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#16 ZeissIkon

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 00:27

QUOTE (hbquikcomjamesl @ Aug 27 2009, 08:21 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
As to taro root, that's what the Hawaiians make poi out of.


Correct, and roughly similar preparations of taro are staples throughout the tropics -- the plant is almost as widespread as hemp. But don't even think about eating taro that hasn't been properly prepared. In South America (where it's called manioc), the raw root is used to kill fish, which are then cooked and eaten (the heat of cooking destroys the toxin).

I wasn't aware of toxicity in beans (other than castor beans, which contain a pretty nasty neurotoxin), but I've long held that broccoli and cauliflower are poisonous -- they just have huge critical doses. I'm still not taking any chances... unsure.gif
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#17 psfred

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 01:26

The toxin is in the seeds of the pokeberry, I think -- that's why birds don't croak from eating them, more's the pity (they eat all my raspberries and grapes).

Toss some rusty nails in to get the iron, and it's supposed to be acidic, else the ferrogallate ink won't work -- no oxidation of the iron to form the ferri-gallate stain if there is no ferrous iron to start with (you get a huge blob of precipitated black crud in the ink instead).

I will report on how this goes when I get around to scouting out some pokeberries. Not really ready yet here, but the plants are young, I usually get rid of them.

The color is anthocyanin -- red/purple in acid, bluish black to gray in alkaline solution. Same as beets, for that matter.

Peter

#18 Possum Hill

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 01:37

QUOTE (psfred @ Aug 27 2009, 08:26 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
The toxin is in the seeds of the pokeberry, I think -- that's why birds don't croak from eating them, more's the pity (they eat all my raspberries and grapes).

Toss some rusty nails in to get the iron, and it's supposed to be acidic, else the ferrogallate ink won't work -- no oxidation of the iron to form the ferri-gallate stain if there is no ferrous iron to start with (you get a huge blob of precipitated black crud in the ink instead).

I will report on how this goes when I get around to scouting out some pokeberries. Not really ready yet here, but the plants are young, I usually get rid of them.

The color is anthocyanin -- red/purple in acid, bluish black to gray in alkaline solution. Same as beets, for that matter.

Peter

Aha! I knew there had to be a reason for the cultivation of beets, other than the unfortunate misapprehension that they're edible.
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#19 marpin

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 02:01

I'm not sure just how bad these berries actually are... I came across an old publication where the authors tried pretty hard to kill mice with them, without too much luck. Of course, seeing as the toxicity is due to secondary metabolites, there is quite possibly a wide variation in toxic dose between different cultivars, or plants grown in different conditions, or harvested a different times. And there's always the issue that mice might respond rather differently to men.
http://digital.libra.../v43/p54_57.pdf

If the pigment is due to anthocyanins, then there are ways to produce crude extracts. Unsurprisingly, most involve chromatography, though I found a few bulk procedures. In particular, from http://www.freshpate...0090099373.php:
"Lietti, in U.S. Pat. No. 4,413,004, discloses a method of extracting anthocyanins from bilberry by extracting the fruit with anhydrous methanol containing hydrochloric acid, followed by adding lead acetate to precipitate the anthocyanins as the lead salts."
and from Elisia et al (2007) Food Chem. 101(3):1052-1058:
"Four batches of 100 g of frozen blackberry were blended with 100 ml of 80% (v/v) ethanol using a Waring blender for 5 min. The slurry was transferred to an Erlenmeyer flask, and extracted overnight. The extract was filtered through a Buchner funnel using Whatman filter paper (No. 1) and rinsed twice with 25 ml of 80% ethanol. The filter cake was transferred to a new Erlenmeyer flask and was re-extracted with 150 ml of 80% ethanol using an orbital shaker at 400 rpm (Innova 4000, New Brunswick Scientific, NJ) for 1 h. The filter cake was extracted for the third time with 80% ethanol overnight and all filtrates were pooled together. Sample extractions were performed in quadruplet. The ethanol in the pooled filtrate was removed under vacuum at 35 °C. The residue was then freeze-dried and kept at 4 °C."

BTW, the toxic principle in castor beans is a ribosomal inhibitor (cleaves 28S rRNA), not a neurotoxin.

#20 linuxchiq

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 13:47

QUOTE (ZeissIkon @ Aug 27 2009, 07:49 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Aha! So, fermenting pokeberry ink in a cast iron pot might, possibly, give a more permanent ink (and will surely render the pot used no longer fit for cooking -- who knows what it might take to get the pokeberry toxins out of the porous iron?) -- except that, based on another post above, the pokeberry dye changing from red to blue-gray if the solution becomes acidic suggests that the dye is more akin to litmus than to tannin. I think I'll stick to black tea (even if I could harvest enough pokeberries from my back yard to make enough ink to bother).


As a matter of fact, a pinch of iron (ferrous sulfate) is often added to a dyebath for the last few minutes of simmering in order to "sadden" the color and improve the light fastness of some dyes. Here is an example of wool dyed with goldenrod, with and without iron.

golden_sm.jpg

Usually, a stainless steel or other non-reactive pot would be used, and any tool used for dying would be reserved for dying only - no food preparation.






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