Although the entire plant is poisonous, this is one of the most widely used edible plants in North America. Only the young shoots 6 to 8 inches tall that emerge in the spring are safe to eat. Taller shoots, and shoots that emerge in the summer are too poisonous. Mature plants are VERY poisonous. It is necessary to boil the young shoots in two changes of water to remove all the poison and make them safe to eat. Properly cooked, it tastes a bit like asparagus. The hungry pioneers learned about this plant from the Indians, and eagerly awaited its appearance every spring. There are still festivals celebrating this weed in the South, where it is cultivated and can be purchased in the supermarket. Native Americans used berry tea to treat rheumatism, arthritis, and dysentery, and a berry poultice to treat breast cancer. A poultice of the root is used to treat scabies, ringworm, fungus infections, pains, sprains, bruises and swellings. People in the Ozarks eat one berry a year as a preventative to arthritis, or drink berry tea to treat it. Leaf preparations have been used as an expectorant, emetic, and cathartic, to treat acne, and to stop bleeding. Research has found that this plant is useful to the immune system. It contains proteins that inhibit flu, herpes, and leukemia, and is being investigated for it's anti-HIV potential. A presidential candidate once wore the leaves of this plant as a campaign symbol. And it certainly is entertaining to watch birds eat the berries in late summer because it makes them act inebriated!!!