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Culinary Versatility - The Common Milkweed
by George Hedgepeth
The Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a very abundant plant around the Great Lakes. It is most conspicuous for most people in the fall, when its large pods split open to free hundreds of silk-parachuted seeds. It also may be noticed in the early summer when its large flower clusters produce a sweet, heady scent that blows across undeveloped, sunny and well-drained fields and roadsides. It may also receive notice for being the nursery-plant for the Monarch butterfly. What seems to be underappreciated is how good it is as food.
Unlike many plants, wild and domestic, the Milkweed provides a variety of edible stages. The new shoots, under 6 or 7 inches, can be used like asparagus. Do not expect the flavor of asparagus however; Milkweed shoots have their own good flavor. The tips of older plants may be used the same way as the shoots. The unopened flower buds are wonderful- they resemble broccoli in appearance. I actually prefer the Milkweed buds; they have their own flavor and are sweeter. The flowers themselves are edible as a vegetable, and are pretty tasty, but I generally prefer them as a treat for the eyes and nose.
In my opinion, the single best food product the Common Milkweed provides are the immature seed pods that develop as soon as the flowers drop from the plant. They have a good flavor and texture, and I do not remember anyone really disliking them in many years of doing wild food programs. Even kids seem to immediately find them delicious. The key here is to gather the pods young- generally less than 2Ē long. At the correct stage, they will be firm with a faintly velvet-like texture. They can be steamed, cooked in soups, or parboiled and stir-fried. I like them best prepared simply, with a touch of salt and black pepper.
There is a bit of controversy about this wonderful plant. The debate is centered on the plantís milky sap and the supposed bitterness of Milkweed products if the sap is not carefully removed by leaching in boiling water. I have not found multiple water changes or any other special preparations needed, or even desirable for this fine vegetable. The results I have obtained from these measures were simply a soggier, over-cooked, less flavorful food.
A much fuller discussion of this issue, as well as a very useable guide to distinguishing Common Milkweed from other, non-edible species may be found in a really great book called THE FORAGERíS HARVEST by Samuel Thayer. It is widely available, and I cannot recommend this book enough. In fact, I was a bit disturbed when I first read it because it is the book I was planning on writing! I have to admit, I believe Mr. Thayer did a better job than I would have, and I value this book and its follow-up, NATUREíS GARDEN, very highly. Please pick up a copy of these books. They will enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors as well as your kitchen.
Mature Milkweed Pods
Also see related article: A Forager's Bibliography
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Briar Patch Outdoors
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Durand MI 48429
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