How To Harvest Milkweed | Wild + Whole
Milkweed is a shining example of why we shouldn’t believe everything we read. It carries with it, to this day, many myths that have traveled by word of mouth and beyond without fact checking or personal experience. Myth number one is that it’s poisonous, myth number two is that it’s bitter, and myth number three if you choose to ignore the first two is that even if we could eat it, we wouldn’t shouldn’t because eating plants won’t. leave enough for the monarch butterflies that depend on it. None of this is true.
Can we eat milkweed?
The toxicity and bitterness myths are now thought to stem from someone mistaking dogbane for common milkweed, which is fairly easy to do in the seedling stage. That “someone” was Euell Gibbons, the most well-known foraging advocate of his time, and he disseminated this judgment based on mistaken identity in his wildly popular foraging books. For generations of wild food writers to come, this information was taken as gospel and repeated without further investigation, until our dear old Sam Thayer came along and, oddly, carefully and diligently, spent years studying and eating milkweed with his own eyes and mouth and I came to the conclusion that we are all so lucky to enjoy it now: milkweed is delicious. I may trust Sam enough to repeat this information as other Eull writers have, but in that case, I’ve been eating milkweed for almost two decades now, so I can tell you myself- even that it is by far one of the best vegetables, from nature or from the garden.
As for the monarch myth, it is true that monarch caterpillars rely on the foliage of certain milkweeds as their only food source, but it is not true that human consumption of the plant is inherently detrimental to the butterfly. It can actually be a good partnership, given that caterpillars only eat the leaves and humans eat the other parts, plucking a bud here or a pod there, leaving the stem standing and the leaves untouched for the caterpillars to eat. feed. In my opinion, the real threat to monarchs and Milkweed is a large-scale habitat loss to industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. The more people start to see milkweed as a food crop that they like enough to grow at home, or at least not mow it, the more likely monarchs are to make their huge migration to Mexico each year.
Where to find milkweed
There are over 100 species of milkweed in North America, and some of them are poisonous. I am only talking here about the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Fortunately, as the name suggests, this is the most common variety. The natural range of this species extends along the east coast and extends westward, covering about two-thirds of the lower 48 meters. It is a familiar sight in hay meadows, pastures, meadows, sunny field edges, roadsides and ‘wastelands’. It is so familiar that it is considered a noxious weed in some places.
You can look for milkweed spots throughout the year by looking for last year’s stems still standing with the iconic teardrop seed husks. Milkweed is a perennial, and it also spreads by seed, so there will be new growth in mid-spring wherever you see the old stems. Before you fill your baskets and have a feast, remember that it’s always a good idea to eat a small amount of any food you’ve never tried before. Some people have reported digestive upset from eating too much milkweed. I’ve never met anyone who had trouble with this, and I’m not sure how much “too much” means either, but it’s always a good idea to start small and wait a day to make sure a new food is right for you.
The sprouts resemble asparagus in that they are thick, juicy and green with small leaves still erect, tight to the stem. At this point, once you’re sure you haven’t mistaken it for dogbane, you can snap the shoots off wherever they break easily, usually at least an inch or two off the ground. This will quickly coat your fingers with a sticky film of the plant’s milky sap, so I like to designate one hand for picking and don’t touch my face with that hand as the sap can be irritating.
I don’t harvest many sprouts, only eat a few meals each spring in plots where they seem crowded. Taking the sprout, the plant may not regrow that year, and I happen to have a soft spot for buds and pods, so I like to leave the sprouts and wait for those. The sprouts I bring home, however, I savor. I like to blanch them in boiling salted water for a minute or two, then dip them in butter and lemon and eat them as is, or toss them on a hot grill for some arctic char, in a stir-fry hot and quick, or in an ice bath to shock then chop and add to cold salads, or put in the freezer. Think of it like a green bean in the body of an asparagus.
Once the shoot elongates into a 3-6 foot mature stem and the velvety, oval, opposite leaves develop, you will see flower buds emerging from the top third of the stem. The buds will start out as tight clusters, resembling broccoli florets, expanding and loosening as they move towards flowering. I like to harvest them when they form a globe-shaped cluster about 1.5-2 inches in diameter with all the buds still closed and relatively compact.
Normally there are lots of buds on each plant and they get pinched easily between thumb and forefinger, so I’ll go around the patch, picking about every fourth bud, never taking all the buds from a plant. Again, be prepared for the milky sap and pick a picking hand and stick with it. They wilt quickly on a hot day, so I’m going to put them in a blickey with a damp towel and put them in a cooler ASAP.
Sam Thayer also made a good observation here, suggesting that we check the base of the buds for baby monarch caterpillars, as that’s where they often live at this stage. I found that to be true, and I’m going to brush them off the remaining buds on the same plant. I collect the buds in bulk to eat them fresh and freeze them. I like to blanch them the same way as sprouts, then use them in any dish calling for broccoli. It does not taste like broccoli, which actually has a much more robust flavor, while milkweed is mild and sweet, very similar in shape and texture to a broccoli floret.
Next come the flowers, which you will often see on the plant along with the buds, as they have a staggered maturation. Each bud in the globe-shaped clusters will open into a small star-shaped flower, making the whole cluster look like fireworks. The flowers range from dark purple, pink or cream and I collect them in exactly the same way as the buds, sometimes on the same day if my timing is right and they are both present.
You’ll definitely want to shake the flower clusters before you put them in your basket (or your mouth), as you’ll notice, a patch of milkweed is an assortment for all kinds of insects – insect watching is actually a much of the fun. Flowers are less of a bulk food than buds, but I still collect a few bunches each year to throw handfuls of sweet, vivid blooms on salads (greens, eggs, potatoes, fruit – they’re perfect for any salad ) , sandwiches, on fish or chicken, or to make any dessert more dazzling.
Once the flowers are pollinated, come those familiar but strange, warty, teardrop-shaped green pods. These you’ll probably notice most in late summer and fall when they break apart and let their seeds fly away, floating on their silky, white parachutes. Before the seeds and their silks ripen, they actually form a tender, juicy mass inside this pod. I like to pick my pods when they are 2.5 inches or less. A pod under 1.5 inches will be ideal for full feeding, and between 1.5 and 2.5 inches will be perfect for digging indoors. You want to use your pods within a day or two of picking, otherwise they get weirdly tough.
Think small pods like okra. You can blanch them, then fry them in a crispy batter and serve them with a creamy dip and watch them disappear. You can also treat them as simply as the buds, by blanching or boiling them until soft and serving them as you would a green bean or broccoli.
The larger pods are used to split and remove the white (make sure it’s completely white, otherwise it’s overripe) before the silk. This white mass should be juicy and tender enough to pinch. I love boiling presilk in salted water, draining it, then using it on hot pepper, stew, pasta or platters in place of melted cheese. You will be surprised at how compelling it is.
Once the pods reach about 3 inches they will be fibrous and inedible, but always keep an eye on them so you can get seeds. You’ll know the seeds are ripe when you see the pods in the patch begin to split open and spill the silky white fuzz inside. It’s time to collect some pods to plant some seeds at home. You can also use the silk as a wind indicator while hunting deer.
Growing milkweed from seed is easy. You can either plant the seeds in the fall directly where you want them outdoors or, for a little more control, they do just fine with this winter sowing method. Some people scoff at the use of milkweed silk as a wind indicator in deer antlers, preferring bottled powder. I’ve tried both and find milkweed silk rides the wind much further, is more visible in all lights, shows shades of wind currents more clearly, and in cold weather is very pleasant to stick his frozen hand in a pocket lined with milkweed silk, more insulating than goose down.