Milkweed in flower
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is a great wildflower to make friends with – offering a number of delightful, tasty and nutritious foods at many times of the year. She is a well-kept secret and it’s time more people got to know her better.
An early succession plant, milkweed seeds sail with the wind to new areas where landslides, fires, beavers, humans, or insects have recently killed an area of late succession forest. They provide habitat and food for many insects like bees, butterflies and spiders, as well as their predators. Many pollinators enjoy milkweed’s sweet nectar, and her leaves are the sole source of food for Monarch butterfly children (who make their own poison, not by concentrating milkweed’s sap, which is not poisonous on its own).
Milkweed is a perennial herb growing 4-6 feet high. Each year her stalks poke out of the ground in the spring – smooth skinned with opposite, simple, ovoid leaves with smooth edges and reddish veins. Her sap is bright white, containing sticky latex, recognizable in spring from the wound of a gently torn leaf.
Flower buds appear in May as clusters of small pale green buds, maturing to large, plum sized clusters, pink to purple in color, each the size of a wild blueberry and looking like a small origami package. They open into firm and neat, white and pink, 5-petaled flowers resembling gummy starfish slightly smaller than M&Ms with a delightful, sweet jasmine fragrance.
Once pollinated the flowers become tiny, pale green, gherkin-like fruits, growing in size to fat okra pods in August. Spiny and soft, they are filled with soft white unripe seeds, like spaghetti squash. The pods ripen later in the fall, getting tougher and when open reveal a multitude of fruits folded together – each a small tuft of silk with a brown and black seed attached looking like a flattened tick. As the pods die, the seeds drift out and can be blown great distances by the wind. After settling, the seeds drops off the silk, spending winter under the dead grass and hatching in the spring. Thus, the plant’s body spreads across the Earth. By November the above ground portion dies, drying to a pale black with grey and white streaks, bare of leaves, and stands as a skeleton stalk for a while before falling down to the earth again.
Mature milkweed pods
Most field guides warn about milkweed’s bitter taste and poisonous constituents. Sam Thayer, in ‘A Forager’s Harvest’ , clarifies this as a case of mistaken identity where foraging hero Euell Gibbons gathered a ‘mess’ of dogbane, and even after many changes of boiling water, pronounced it unpalatable. Since then, other authors have perpetuated this misconception. Thanks to Thayer, folks are rediscovering milkweed as a delicious vegetable as tender and tasty as spinach – requiring no special processing or boiling to remove bitterness (of which there is none), or toxicity (of which there is none).
Comparing milkweed to its toxic cousin dogbane is easy. Dogbane’s central stalk branches into several sub stalks, where milkweed’s is single and straight. Dogbane’s stalks are thinner like pencils and are green to reddish brown – while milkweed’s are thicker, like magic markers with green skin in summer and black in the winter. Dogbane’s compound flowers are more dispersed, empty and whitish yellow, while milkweed’s are pink and purple and fairly compact. Dogbane’s fruit is thin and long like vanilla beans, milkweed’s are thick and fat like okra. Dogbane’s leaves are thin, short and bitter where milkweed’s are wide, long, and pleasant tasting.
Milkweed is food – delicious cooked or raw, and safe to eat without any processing.
- Shoots: Young spring shoots and leaves, while floppy, are entirely edible and tender. They are great raw, in fritters, omelets, in quiches, or cooked any way you would asparagus.
- Stalk tips: The floppy tips and leaves at the top of the plant, when bendable enough to snap off, can be treated as above. As milkweed ages, her stalks and larger leaves become tough – so focus on the smaller leaves.
- Flower buds: Like broccoli, the buds are nutty and taste like spinach. Great as savory fritters, pickles, stir fries or soups. These dry well for winter use in soups.
- Flowers: The sweet flowers make excellent infused honey, mead flavorings, sweet donut-like fritters, pickles, or a cooked veggie.
- Milkweed fruits: The unripe pods are excellent raw, pickled, cut and dried for winter use, blended for soups, battered and fried, or steamed and stuffed like jalapeno poppers. Keep harvesting them at any size until they become too fibrous and tough for your liking.
- Immature seeds and fluff: Inside the soft unripe pods is a whitish mushy mass which can be eaten out of the pod and reportedly melted down into a cheesy treat.
- Nectar: The sweet flowers are energy rich, can be fermented, and are a good trail food.
- Sap: After drying, chew the sap like gum for an interesting, nutty tasting nibble.
Milkweed, Part 2: String & Rope will be posted next week…