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.