My inky jaunt into our American past began last month with the admiration of a boldly colored, berry-laden mystery plant in the garden of my son and daughter-in-law. As Amy and I were admiring this tall, magenta-tinged interloper, Eli went online to find out what it might be. Soon he had the information: it was a pokeweed, a significant plant in United States history. The Declaration of Independence was written with the fermented juice of the berries of this plant. Further, Civil War soldiers wrote letters home using this available ink. The plant is more common in the south and east than here in the northwest. The more information Eli relayed to us, the more intrigued we became. I asked myself: what calligrapher worth her ink wouldn't give this a try? Immediately, I harvested some berries and once back at home, I proceeded with the experiment, inspired by the historic significance of the plant also known as inkberry. Here's the way it went:
A ripening cluster of pokeweed berries. In the background, the valley in SW Washington where Eli and Amy have their small farm.
First, I crushed the berries using a mortar and pestle. Next, I allowed the berries to sit in a glass bowl for two days in a warm spot so that they would begin to ferment.
Then, I poured the fermenting berries into a cheesecloth-lined coffee cone and pressed the juice through. To the juice I added a little bit of water. I heated the resulting "ink" in the microwave in order to discourage bacteria from growing.
My two clusters of berries yielded about three tablespoons of ink. Below you see my handwritten sample using the historic ink recipe. The fluid wrote perfectly with the old-fashioned pointed steel nib shown in the photo. Currently, the sample is on my windowsill, exposed to light so that I can witness the probable fading of this very organic ink. Oh, one more thing: don't drink the ink. It's poisonous!