You can eat common milkweed, but should you?
Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor
There are three times in the life cycle of the common milkweed (Ascleoius syriaca) plant when you can eat it. The first, when the tender short shoots are just emerging from the ground. When they are shorter than about eight inches (my hand span), they can be pulled, the bit of root end removed, and cooked.
The next time you can forage for edible parts is the budding stage, show in the photo. The last opportunity is when the pods are very small, less than two inches.
The milkweed contains a milky white sap consisting of alkaloids, latex, cardenolides and other constituents. It is considered toxic. Luckily, the toxins are water soluble and can easily be removed during cooking.
For all three of these plant parts, it is suggested that you boil water, add the plant, cook for 2-3 minutes, discard the water, cover with new fresh boiling water, cook for another 2-3 minutes, discard the water again, add more fresh boiling water, and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Discard the water and either repeat again if additional cooking is needed or eat it as is or add to other foods.
With 3-4 changes of water, it should now be safe to consume.
When the plant has turned brighter green and is tender, it is ready to eat. Don’t overcook them, they don’t do well as a soggy overcooked vegetable.
My first experience with milkweed was the early buds. I found that they tasted like extraordinarily fresh broccoli. The early shoots have been described as asparagus like, which I disagree with.
Again, a very fresh flavor, like much improved broccoli stalks is how I would describe it. The pods are unique in texture, and better if they are smaller. Very green tasting!
I have used the cooked buds chilled in a potato salad, and enjoyed the added texture and green freshness. You can certainly combine them hot or cold with other foods, but try them on their own to begin with. They are a tasty delight.
Be sure you’ve picked the common milkweed, confirmed by noting the bright white sap. Don’t confuse it with the sort of look-a-likes dogbane and butterfly weed. Neither one has the milky sap characteristic of common milkweed.
It is a great tasty plant, but the question has to be raised. Should you eat it?
This is one of the milkweeds that the monarch butterfly depends on. The monarch lays her eggs on the milkweed leaves, which are then consumed by the emerging caterpillar. The life cycle of the monarch depends on easily finding milkweed. You’ll see monarchs landing on the very fragrant flowers, and having lots of milkweed is a sure way to attract these marvelous butterflies to your garden.
The required monarch habitats are in danger. This is from the web site Monarch Watch:
"Milkweeds and nectar sources are declining due to development and the widespread use of herbicides in croplands, pastures and roadsides. Because 90 percent of all milkweed/monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape, farm practices have the potential to strongly influence monarch populations.
Development. Development (subdivisions, factories, shopping centers, etc.) in the U.S. is consuming habitats for monarchs and other wildlife at a rate of 6,000 acres per day - that's 2.2 million acres each year, the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined!
Genetically Modified Crops. Widespread adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans has resulted in the loss of more than 80 million acres of monarch habitat in recent years. The planting of these crops genetically modified to resist the non-selective systemic herbicide glyphosate (RoundupÂ®) allows growers to spray fields with this herbicide instead of tilling to control weeds. Milkweeds survive tilling but not the repeated use of glyphosate. This habitat loss is significant since these croplands represent more than 30% of the summer breeding area for monarchs.
Roadside Management. The use of herbicides and frequent mowing along roadsides has converted much of this habitat to grasslands - a habitat generally lacking in food and shelter for wildlife. Although some states have started to increase the diversity of plantings along roadsides, including milkweeds, these programs are small.
Unfortunately, the remaining milkweed habitats in pastures, hayfields, edges of forests, grasslands, native prairies, and urban areas are not sufficient to sustain the large monarch populations seen in the 1990s. Monarchs need our help."
If you go to the Monarch Watch website, you can sign up to be recognized as a monarch waystation. There are a number of these recognized waystations in Ann Arbor. The process is simple, and can be done online.
Leaving even a few milkweed plants in your garden will help. We need to encourage milkweed, a native plant that is critical to the monarch life cycle.
So are you taking food out of the mouths of butterflies if you eat milkweed?
Potentially, yes. If you want to harvest milkweed to eat, do it only when there are large quantities of the plant present. Do not over-harvest. While it is hard to say what exact numbers the monarchs need, at least a couple dozen plants in any one area would be a minimum.
Milkweed can spread aggressively through both seeds and rhizomes. So it easy to repopulate and doesn’t actually need the buds and pods to do so. I usually harvest enough from my yard for a small enjoyable couple servings and leave the rest to repopulate my colony.
Since I’ve had milkweed in my garden, there have been plenty of plants growing in places that I need for other things; I’ll harvest those plants to eat. Earlier today I pulled a number of milkweed plants that had grown into the street. I saved the buds to cook later.
Milkweed is a great example of a plant that should be harvested thoughtfully, ethically and responsibly because the monarchs rely on it, and because it begins as a toxic plant.
I encourage you to grow it for the monarchs, with a little bit for you to enjoy as well.
Linda Diane Feldt is a local Holistic Health Practitioner, teacher and writer. Her cookbook “Spinach and Beyond: Loving Life and Dark Green Leafy Vegetables” is available from Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, Nicolas, Morgan and York and Amazon.com. You can follow her on twitter, visit her website, or contact her directly at ldfeldt(at)holisticwisdom.org. Her next free class sponsored by The People’s Food Co-op is on introducing kids to wild foods. The class is Thursday June 23, at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, 7-8:30. Pre-registration is advised, 734-994-4589, but not required.