When a plant name includes the word “weed,” it’s hard for some people to think of it as anything but an unwelcome visitor in the garden. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is, indeed, a roadside weed. But baby, it’s so much more.
There’s a mythology surrounding milkweed, and it includes a lot of misconceptions. Some people swear milkweed is bitter, others claim it’s poisonous. Actually, when properly harvested and prepared, milkweed is tender and delicious. If I were foraging in the wilderness and had to choose just one plant to eat, it would probably be milkweed. That’s how good it is.
Reports of milkweed’s bitterness and toxicity are most likely the result of people mistaking dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) for milkweed. Dogbane is a bitter plant that superficially resembles milkweed. Additionally, the two plants often grow side by side. It’s actually pretty easy to differentiate between the two when you know what to look for. Here’s how to make a side by side comparison:
Dogbane has solid stems while those of milkweed are hollow.
Dogbane branches to form multiple stems, while milkweed stems do not branch.
The flowers of common milkweed are reflexed stars, with five petals of pink or pale pink. Dogbane flowers are white, and while they are also five-petalled, they never open so wide as to present a reflexed star.
Milkweed should always be eaten cooked, not raw. Boil or blanch the shoots, flower buds, and pods, then cook them to completion in any number of ways. You may read that milkweed requires boiling in three changes of water, but this is not true. I bet the person who started that nasty rumor harvested dogbane instead of milkweed.
How to Harvest Milkweed
Harvest young milkweed stems when they’re six – eight inches tall. They should be tender enough to snap with a quick twist; you probably won’t even need pruners. You may want to wear gloves when harvesting, because of the milky latex that milkweed oozes when cut or broken. I’ve read that it can cause a rash but I’ve never met anyone who has experienced this. Mostly it’s just sticky and messy. Sometimes the top several inches of older stems are tender enough to eat. If you can easily break off the top of the stem with your hand, by all means do so. If you have to cut the stem, it’s probably too fibrous to be tasty.
The mature leaves of milkweed can be bitter and should be removed from the shoots before cooking. Feel free to leave the last pair of immature leaves on the tips of the shoots; they won’t be bitter.
It’s always difficult to describe new flavors in terms of familiar ones, but I’ll try: milkweed shoots taste a little like green beans, only better. Blanch the stems for a minute or two to remove the latex, then toss them in olive oil and garlic, and roast them in a 450°F oven for about 15 minutes. A sprinkling of parmesan would not go amiss.
Young milkweed flower buds can be harvested when they are tightly clustered, and anywhere from entirely green to showing barely a blush of pink. The buds are clasped between two immature leaves, which are fine to include in your harvest. Blanch the flower buds, then sauté them in olive oil with salt and pepper. These may look like mini broccoli florets, but they are much milder and tastier. Serve them plain as a side vegetable, or use them in a dinner quiche.
Gather mature milkweed flowers when they are freshly opened. If you can collect them when each flower is graced with a large, sticky drop of clear nectar…even better! Shake off any insects that hitchhiked in on your harvest, but don’t rinse the flowers. That would wash away the pollen and nectar, which is where the flavor comes from. Milkweed flower syrup makes a delicate sorbet and a unique cocktail ingredient. The flavor will be familiar to anyone who recognizes the intoxicating scent of the milkweed bloom.
Immature milkweed pods are tasty until they’re 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. They should be firm and plump, and entirely white inside. Split open one of your larger pods and if you see brown flecks among the silk, it’s too mature for eating. Immature milkweed pods are an excellent addition to stews, soups, and stir fries. Like milkweed shoots, they have a flavor reminiscent of green beans, but their size and shape add a substance that stands up to longer cooking times. The white, immature silk is vaguely sweet and almost melts with cooking. (But if you read that it tastes like cheese don’t believe it, or you may be disappointed.) My favorite way to eat them? Battered and deep fried.
Shoots, unopened florets, and seed pods freeze well, but should be blanched before freezing. Thawed milkweed has a softer texture than fresh, but the flavor is still good. Blend it with stock to make a thick soup or chop it up small and add it to egg dishes and casseroles.
Some gardeners allow common milkweed in their gardens because of its showy, fragrant flowers. It’s also a great pollinator plant and an essential food for monarch butterfly larvae, so if you’re interested in creating a wildlife habitat, consider including milkweed. It grows best in well-drained soil and full sun, and is quite drought tolerant once established. It has an aggressive growth habit, spreading both by seed and by underground runners, so cultivate it with care.
Milkweed has many different, delicious edible parts, and it’s easy to find in great abundance. That makes it an important wild food to have in your repertoire, and one of this forager’s favorite.