|Milkweed in summer and fall. Many parts of the plant are edible. English photos.|
By Jean Ann Pollard
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Quoted by Bradford Angier in Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Stackpole Books, 1974.
Loren Eiseley: “… there passed before my eyes the million airy troopers of the milkweed pod … somehow triumphing over life’s limitations.” How Flowers Changed the World, Sierra Club Books, 1996.
Wild things that march into vegetable and flower gardens from surrounding fields and woods are often beautiful, and when they’re edible as well, culinary excitement is great.
Take Asclepias syriaca L., our common milkweed. With edible young shoots, leaves and flower heads, it’s a treasure trove of great, green food.
Nearly ubiquitous from southern Canada to Kansas, Tennessee and the uplands of Georgia, Asclepias syriaca goes by many names: silkweed, butterfly weed, monarch flower, rosy or pink milkweed. As with all wild foraging, correctly identifying our desirable, common beauty is necessary – and easy.
Don’t look for it in “damp meadows,” suggests Joan Richardson in her splendid field guide, Wild Edible Plants of New England. (DeLorme, 1981) That’s the lair of the purple milkweed, A. purpurascens, of unknown edibility. The leaves of purple milkweed are slightly narrower, and pods lack the warts found on common milkweed. Check, instead, the drier soils of roadsides, fields and waste places. Looking much like 4- to 6-inch asparagus stalks in early spring, the sturdy, green shoots will be hugged closely by young leaves with “a broad paddle shape. They’ll already be thick for their size.”
An important identification feature is the “dense white nap on the lower surfaces of the leaves, even when young.” Poisonous dogbane, sometimes mistaken for milkweed, has “somewhat similar stalks,” but its paddle-shaped leaves are not at all fuzzy. Dogbane also quickly branches, “which milkweed never does,” says Richardson.
Don’t confuse the common milkweed with A. tuberosa, which also goes by the common name of butterfly weed. Asclepias tuberosa has erect, orange flowers and watery rather than milky sap – and is listed as toxic. (Poisonous Plants of North Carolina)
Common milkweed plants grow some 2 to 5 feet tall, with oblong leaves opposite one another and on short petioles. Globe-shaped flower heads – clusters of many individual blossoms – appear later in the summer, often droop somewhat, and are fragrant and beloved by bees. Still later seed pods, which enclose the silk, are pointed, gray-green and always warty.
Most milkweeds produce a sticky, white sap that “neither tastes good nor is … good for you,” says Richardson. Appearing when stems are broken or a leaf removed, some well-known foragers find it so bitter and toxic that shoots, leaves and flowers must be cooked to mush before they’re safe to eat. Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay Co., 1962) says milkweed has an “excessively bitter taste” and needs an initial boiling for one minute, the process repeated three times with a final boiling “for about ten minutes,” which would reduce the greens to mush. Angier warns in his field guide, “the milky sap … must be removed by boiling” several times.
Toxicity is an old story. Peter Kalm, a Swede who explored eastern North America, reported in his 1748-51 Travels in North America (Dover edition, 1966) that “the plant is reckoned in some degree poisonous.”
In a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service bulletin about common milkweed (plants.usda.gov/plantguide/doc/cs_assy.doc), Michelle Stevens writes: “Milkweed species as a group are known to contain cardiac glycosides that are poisonous to humans and livestock, as well as other substances that may account for their medicinal effect. Resinoids, glycosides, and a small amount of alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand or walk, high body temperature, rapid and weak pulse, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma.” The bulletin has this general warning: Milkweed may be toxic when taken internally, without sufficient preparation.
“Fortunately,” says Lee Allen Peterson in his 1977 Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Eastern and Central North America, “both of these properties” – the bitterness and mild toxicity – “are dispelled upon boiling, and Milkweed becomes one of the better wild vegetables.”
Samuel de Champlain, and Sieur De Monts – who saw extensive gardens along the coast of New England in the 1600s – noted that Native Americans cherished milkweed. With sophisticated agriculture and a network of trade routes, they’d brought corn from the Southwest; planted edible nut trees and apples near their fields for easy harvest; semi-cultivated raspberries, strawberries, grapes, juneberries and mayapple; gathered sap from maple, birch, beech, hickory and other trees; and cultivated sunflowers – and possibly milkweed.
“One always finds a riot of milkweed close to wigwams,” noted Huron Smith, whose research, published in 1923, was quoted in Charlotte Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. (Dover, 1989)
While medicinal properties were well known, including milkweed’s efficacy as a birth control, the Iroquois cooked the young leaves like spinach, the Chippewa cut up and stewed the flowers, according to F. W. Waugh (“Iroquois foods and food preparations,” in Mem. 86 Anthrop. Ser. 12, Can. Dept. Mines, Ottawa, 1916), while the Meskwaki added buds and blossoms to soups, sometimes stirring them into cornmeal mush, writes Huron Smith (“Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki,” Bull. Pub. Mus. Milwaukee 4:189-274, 1923.) The Ojibwe and Potawatomi put fresh flowers and shoots into soups, and dried the flowers for winter.
Harvesting milkweed today is a spring and summer joy. For springtime sprout gathering, know where you identified A. syriaca the year before so that you won’t mistakenly gather something toxic. The shoots can be cooked like asparagus; tender, young top leaves are better eating than spinach when lightly cooked; and July and August’s walnut-sized balls of greenish-grey flower buds are wonderful when steamed like broccoli or coated with batter and quickly deep-fried. Hard, immature pods make good additions to soups or stir-fries. Never eat mature leaves, stalks or pods.
After the pods split open to release the seed-bearing silken parachutes so beloved by children, colonists of the past stuffed pillows and mattresses with the fluff, and it was collected during WWII for life preservers.
Today in Maine we can count the common milkweed as one of our blessings and happily allow it into our gardens. It spreads easily and has to be controlled, but the tall, stately stalks also produce masses of lovely bloom that monarch butterflies worship, and one wonders why the common milkweed hasn’t been considered an established member of the gardening community long before now.
As with all foraged foods, correctly identify the edible milkweed, A. syriaca L. Never confuse it with other milkweeds or dogbane.
• Even when young, the leaves show a dense white nap on their lower surfaces.
• The dusty-rose flower heads are large and domed.
• The mature pods, which appear in late summer, are warty.
When carefully identified milkweed shoots are 4 to 6 inches tall, blanch them once, throw off the water, then steam them like asparagus and serve them with a lemon-flavored sauce.
Milkweed Leaf “Spinach”
In June when the plant is taller and the four to six top leaves cupped about the stem are 1 to 1-1/2 inches long, serve them in place of spinach. Pluck the four to six top leaves and about 2 inches of tender stalk. Rinse them quickly, pop them into a large pot in which an inch of water is already boiling, and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, turning once with a long-handled fork. Drain and serve immediately with slices of lemon, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; or with a sprinkling of extra-virgin olive oil and shoyu (naturally fermented Japanese soy sauce).
Steamed Milkweed Buds
Milkweed flower buds are particularly succulent. When they look like knobby, green golf balls wobbling atop the plant, they’re perfect for steaming and being served like broccoli. Pluck off as many bud clusters as you fancy. Rinse them quickly, pop them into a large pot in which an inch of water is boiling, and steam them till tender, perhaps 8 minutes, turning once carefully with a fork. Drain well and serve with slices of lemon, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper; or with extra-virgin olive oil and naturally fermented soy sauce.
Deep-fried Milkweed Buds in Whole Wheat Beer Batter
Collect 4 to 6 cups of firm flower bud clusters. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk until light and fluffy:
Into another bowl, sift together:
1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached white flour
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
Sift the flour mixture into the eggs and add:
2 Tbsp. light beer
1/2 tsp. sea salt
Whisk well again.
Dip the milkweed bud clusters into the batter, let them drip a little, place them on a plate, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Set a wok on its collar, add peanut oil to a depth of 3 inches, and heat it to 350 to 375 F. When the oil is hot but not smoking, gently insert some battered buds and deep-fry them till golden. Then remove them quickly from the hot oil and drain them well on a rack and/or paper towels. Repeat as often as necessary.
Serve immediately. As with all battered vegetables, rice or noodles make good accompaniments, along with pickles and other vegetables.
When deep-frying milkweed buds, I have never blanched them first, and we have never suffered harmful side-effects.
When milkweed pods are young, firm and not at all spongy, they too can be batter-dipped and deep-fried, or simply stir-fried with other vegetables.
To use leftover cooked milkweed greens or flower buds, chill and serve them with freshly squeezed lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, and a sprinkling of naturally fermented soy sauce.
If you lack a thermometer for deep-frying, an old Asian method works well: Stick an unvarnished wooden or bamboo chopstick into the hot oil. A steady stream of bubbles will rise from the submerged end. At 320 F, the line of bubbles from the tip will be frail; at 350, the bubbles will swirl all over; at 375, the swirl will be wild!