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Foraging a Summer Meal of Magnificent Milkweed


A weed is simply a plant whose virtues have not been discovered” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now is the time to learn what wild foods are edible and how to prepare them. If people don’t learn at least the basics of foraging before a food crisis arises they may remain hungry while good food is all around for the taking.

It could be difficult to fully sustain yourself and your family on foraged foods during hard times and in all seasons since our modern society has moved away from the hunter- gatherer life style but knowing what and how to forage can add fresh foods that may be scarce. Having knowledge can save lives.

Milkweed is a delicious summer foraged food:

First, as I have mentioned before, I’d suggest keeping a notebook (not on your device or iphone) with information on the milkweed plant and perhaps any others you prefer that are growing near you. The book can become your personal identification and recipe book resource.

Make it compact and light. Choose a plant or two that grows in your region and get to know them until you are comfortable with your ability to identify and use them properly for food and/or medicine. Add more. Move at your own pace. Now is the perfect time to begin or add to your knowledge base.

Sharing what you learn will help others and reinforce your own abilities and confidence. Maybe you’d like to find a kindred buddy and share the experience. In other posts, we’ve discussed foraging with an experienced forager, using specific identification resources and the ethics involved in gathering wild foods, so let’s move on from there.

woods forest

The majority of us in our modern fast-paced world have become so used to having our foods boxed, canned, frozen, powdered, extruded, microwaved, precooked, prepeeled, liquefied, delivered to our door or served to us at a restaurant or drive-thru, that the concept of foraging, preparing and actually eating wild foods would seem crazy and not something most are inclined to consider learning enough about to be beneficial in scarce times.

Many preppers, especially BDS readers, I hope, are the exception. Even though I have been at this “wild crafting” thing for decades there is always something new to learn, so foraging and eating these delicacies is unceasingly satisfying for body and mind! There seems to be a bright spot because in recent years there has been a resurgence of farm-to-fork and a more natural view of food.

Although we may not be able to fully rely on foraged food right now for our total diet, these plants can keep us alive if we have that foraging identification and preparation knowledge. It is possible. Our ancestors have done it through millennia and my own mother and grandmother and their family did it in order to keep from going hungry.

A simple walk in the woods, fields or just outside your backdoor will begin to reveal a smorgasbord of magnificent edibles! Instead of weeds we can learn to see pancakes, salads, stir-fries, steamed veggies, fruits, dolmas, jellies, spreads, breads and so much more!

milkweed plant

Milkweed Plant in Field Near Our House

Note how the lowest flower on this plant is the oldest and the top flower is the newest blossom, not fully opened. The Common Milkweed ( asclepias syriaca) grows between 3 and 5 feet tall.

The 3 Edible Parts:

  1. The early spring shoots (up to 8 inches )
  2. Bud clusters (unopened flowers)
  3. The pods when they’re less than 2 inches long.

Prepared correctly these are delicious, nutritious delicacies to be enjoyed. If you look at a plant as the flower clusters begin to die off, you can see tiny pods beginning to develop. At first the pod appears to be a small unopened single flower bud, but a closer look reveals a slightly pointed tip.

This is how you can differentiate the forming seed pod from a left over flower lobe. When that pod reaches 1” to perhaps 2” long it is ready to enjoy.

I promise you it is absolutely wonderful to the taste. I’ve prepared these for quite a few people and even those who began as skeptics ended as vocal believers! If you wait too long the pod becomes tougher and the inside “white silk and seeds” develop. There are many ways to enjoy the smaller pods and other parts that we will talk about shortly.

milkweed pod

Mature Inedible Milkweed Pod, Seeds and Coma (Fluff or Silk)

A Bit of History

Back in the early 1940’s during World War II, schoolchildren collected thousands of pounds of milkweed fluff to stuff life preservers for military use in the South Pacific, because the Kapok normally used for these life jackets and preservers usually came from Japanese-occupied Indonesia and was then unavailable.

Today, you can buy pillows, outerwear, and comforters stuffed with a hypoallergenic blend of goose down and milkweed fibers, which is very soft and has a higher insulation value than goose down alone. You can purchase it from a company called Ogallala Down, in Ogallala, Nebraska, but they are very expensive

Other Uses:

Milkweed stalks also produce a coarse, sisal-like fiber that can be used for twine. Like the relative Indian Hemp, the inner bark which can be twisted into string or rope. It has been used by various tribes, explorers and settlers of the past.

It was a regular food item for all Native American tribes within its broad range. They also used the sap to make textile dyes. Fibers and coma from the pods were also used to make paper, hats and cloth.

Milkweed has a long history of use and is known to help alleviate certain skin and lung conditions. It was used as a medicine, made from the extract of boiled roots, to treat bowel and kidney disorders. The milky sap can be applied to warts and to relieve poison ivy.

Those of you who are interested in bush craft probably already know that poke milkweed, swamp milkweed, and possibly a few other species produce some of the best plant fibers for creating cordage. The fibers are very long, easy to peel, and extremely strong. My brother who was a nationally ranked competitive archer, once made a bowstring with an 80 pound draw weight out of milkweed cordage.

The fluff of milkweed makes excellent tinder in fire starting. Keeping it enclosed in the dried pod while traveling acts as an outer protection against dampness. Since they are light weight it’s easy to keep several of these in your pack. You can start collecting a few dried pods around late August through November depending on your locale.

CAUTION: While foraging, keep the milky sap off of your hands because if you rub your eyes and the sap enters the eye you can have blurry vision and painful burning for several days. This could be especially dangerous if you are traveling alone or if speed is essential in escaping an area of chaos.

I always bring a few pair of surgical type gloves and pre-moistened novelettes along on every foraging trip. The latex sap resembles Elmer’s’ glue not only in appearance but because it’s very sticky.

A Word about the Current State of Milkweed and Monarch Butterflies

Before we get into how to prepare milkweed for a foraged meal let’s take a minute to put its use into perspective ecologically.

milkweed butterfly

The healthy milkweed plant pictured at the beginning of this article is growing in a medium sized patch of perhaps two or three dozen plants.

That’s probably because the soybean and cornfields nearby, where it used to grow very prolifically, have been sprayed with Round-Up (glyphosate) but the milkweed has not been genetically modified like the field crops have been and so they die in the Round-Up contaminated areas. Few “weeds” can grow in that field now.

Of course this wonderful plant is also adversely affected by herbicides, insecticides and mowing. Milkweed thrives in freshly turned earth but with many of the modern farming practices, large field tilling is a thing of the past.

Instead, the growing use of Round Up is killing native plants and destroying their habitats and in this case, the habitat, nursery and food source of Monarch butterflies. Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) adults can forage for nectar on many different plant species, but monarch larvae depend solely on milkweed as its host.

Milkweed Leaves are the Only Food Source for Monarch Caterpillars.

Milkweed has a natural chemical in it called an alkaloid. When monarch caterpillars ingest this chemical, their bodies become bitter to the taste so birds quickly learn to avoid eating them.

milkweed catepillar

The bright stripped colors are actually are a warning to birds and other predators saying, “Hey I taste awful”. The caterpillar eats one leaf then moves to the next and the next growing fatter. After two weeks of this leaf eating frenzy, the monarch caterpillar forms a cocoon.

Milkweed plants appear every year here in my rural part of northern Maryland along roadsides, in nearby Amish fields and along tree lines, hedgerows, pastures and in gardens. There are about 75 species that grow throughout much of the United States.

They grow in 39 states but these diminishing patches are not large enough to sustain normal levels of the Monarch butterfly at the standard of even 20 years ago. Each year the butterfly population is dwindling.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The monarch butterfly population in North America has plummeted by over 90% in just the last 20 years. Destruction of America’s grasslands ecosystems, commercial agricultural practices {glycophates} and even conventional gardening have all contributed to the precipitous decline of this iconic species.

Milkweed can spread aggressively through both seeds and rhizomes, so it is easy to repopulate and doesn’t actually need every bud and seed pod to do so. With plants that grow this way, the aerial parts are not individual plants; they are the leafy stalks of a single plant that are connected by the rhizomes below the ground.

But even so milkweed is still not near the wholesome population levels of previous years since the large healthy fields that have normally been their habitat are contaminated and it is difficult to keep up with the speed of decline.

Related:  The Pencil Snare: Trap For Your Life (Part 7)

There are numerous “Save the Monarch” type projects that encourage individuals to plant milkweed in their own garden, landscape and throughout the community to keep this Monarch host plant available.

milkweed

I usually harvest enough milkweeds near my house and the nearby field for a small tasty meal and leave the rest to repopulate my little outpost with Monarchs. This year I found another Amish field with a good crop of milkweed plants (they still till their fields) and was able harvest a second helping!

This family farm is one of my regular foraging sites for elderberry, watercress, cattails and common mallow. Often the little 5 year old girl quietly follows on my walks. She can’t yet speak English and I can’t speak Pennsylvania German but we still are able to communicate through joyful plant discoveries.

I Thought Milkweed was Toxic, Right?

That’s right. This plant can be toxic. But that is true of several plants we eat regularly.

Stone Fruits: One example would be fruits with pits like cherries (as I am munching on a bowl right now) peaches, apricot and plums! Their pits contain certain compounds that create cyanide. Swallowing one pit won’t hurt you but don’t chew it up!

Raw Cashews: What we consume as “raw cashews” are actually cooked in order to remove the shell. They are marketed as “raw” because they have not been roasted or otherwise processed. If left actually raw they would contain a substance called urushiol, which is a poisonous resin that is the same substance contained in poison ivy!

cashews nuts

Starfruit: The pretty Starfruit contains the toxin called caramboxin. For most people with properly functioning kidneys this toxin presents no danger at all, however if there is a kidney problem and the toxin can’t be excreted, it can cause minor adverse effects or it could lead to seizures and death.

Potatoes: Most of the time eating potatoes does not create a health problem, but it’s important to avoid eating them if there are areas that have a greenish hue. This is a telltale sign of areas where solanine, a very toxic alkaloid has accumulated.

potatoes vegetable

When potatoes are exposed to light, they produce that greenish chlorophyll pigment that turns potatoes green. Chlorophyll itself is harmless, but it can signal the presence of the solanine toxin. Throw it out.

Now that we know that we commonly eat foods that are potentially poisonous maybe we’ll be willing to learn to prepare parts of the milkweed plant. Then if we are ever in a food shortage situation or we are on the move and need food, we can take advantage of this foraging option with confidence.

How Is Milkweed Prepared to Make It Safe and Delicious to Eat?

Prepared correctly these are delicious, nutritious delicacies to be enjoyed.

First, never eat them raw. They contain several glucosidic substances called cardenolides that are toxic. But with that said it is easy to neutralize cardenolides. (There is some debate about consumption of raw milkweed amongst plant experts but I always take the side of caution)

As with several other “toxic” plants, cooking neutralizes these poisons. The water should be changed at least once when preparing milkweed but it is tastier after the second water change.

Some foragers recommend just boiling the pods for 8 minutes but before I boil or steam them, I use several “waters”. As you know from previous posts, boiling water is poured over the edible parts you’re preparing and boiled for one minute, that water is poured off and then the process is repeated with more boiling water. This is done as many times as you like, generally 2-4 times depending on the plant. I use this process at least 4 times with young pokeweed leaves.

Look-a-Likes:

How to Tell the Difference between Common Milkweed and Dogbane.

Getting the correct identification of any plant, in any stage of development is always crucial. It can be a challenge to identify the milkweed shoots because they often grow close to or entwined with Dogbane, which is similar in appearance.

Dogbane contains cymarin, a drug used to control irregular heartbeat in humans and is not edible. It is considered to be poisonous and has toxic side effects. These constituents along with cardenolides occur in most members of the Milkweed family, and in even higher quantities in the very closely related Dogbane family.

Dogbane Plant

dogbane plant

  • Dogbane has a solid stalk. Milkweed’s stalk is hollow. However when the young milkweed shoots are ready to be harvested in the spring, many of them can appear to be solid in this stage of growth. They become more noticeably hollow as they mature.
  • Both produce a thick milky sap when either stalk or leaf is cut.
  • Dogbane leaves branch out near the top of the plant. Milkweed is usually smaller at the top and has a more upright single stalk.
  • Dogbane leaves usually grow smaller at the top of the plant and are narrower than the common milkweed’s broader leaves. Milkweed leaves remain about the same size all the way to the top of the plant.
  • Dogbane pods look like string beans. Milkweed pods are plump with a pointed tip, and are bumpy with small spikes. The spikes are not sharp.
  • Dogbane leaves have a red vein running the length of each leaf. Milkweed has a pale pink to white vein.
  • Dogbane flowers look like little drooping bells and are usually white. The dogbane flower cluster is looser, and there are fewer individual buds in each cluster. Milkweed flowers form a tight globe with individual flowers, ranging from pale to bright pink to a more vibrant lilac shade as seen below. The leaves of the milkweed grow in opposite pairs along the stalk with short stems. They are elongated ovals, veined and thick. The stalk and undersides of the leaves are covered with fine hairs that can be seen under magnification and felt with your fingers, another important characteristic.
  • It is most difficult to distinguish these two plants in the early spring before buds develop and flowers open. This makes identifying the shoots more difficult but the dogbane shoots are thinner.
  • Their stalks have a reddish hue where the common milkweed might have a few reddish spots on the mature stalk. The milkweed stalks are a bit woodier.

milkweed-plant-wood

The Woody Stem of the Mature Milkweed Plant

Let’s talk about 3 of edible parts of milkweed.

  1. Young Shoots in springtime.

The young shoots (up to eight inches tall) can be cooked like asparagus. Drain well. Then simply add some salt and butter and enjoy or you can sauté` the shoots with wild onion or garlic and serve either plain with salt or in a light butter sauce.

The shoots can be added to a pot of soup near the end of cooking, or cut up and added to a quiche or casserole before baking. Any way you prepare them they are superbly delicious. They are surprisingly tender and without any bitterness.

If you come upon a patch of what you think might be milkweed shoots remember that they resemble poisonous dogbane shoots which are very bitter, but dogbane has pointy leaves and a smooth surface while milkweed shoots have a velvety leaf like sage and rounded leaves.

I would strongly suggest that you bring along an experienced guide when foraging for milkweed shoots. It takes some knowledge and experience, not just a guidebook, to safely forage this springtime edible.

It is easy to make a mistake when distinguishing dogbane and milkweed shoots and in the spring you don’t have the advantage of whole plant identifiers. Even the hollow vs solid stem may be difficult to be sure of at this stage of development.

milkweed shoots

Tender Young Milkweed Shoots

It’s fun to cut these shoots diagonally like French beans before cooking. This decreases the cooking time so if you are in the woods or on the move and want to hurry the process along then this might be a good option.

In the 18th century people from Canada to New England regarded milkweed “sprouts” as a nutritious, tasty wild vegetable. Some said they tasted like string beans. So when you try this dish just realize that it has been enjoyed for centuries by our ancestors.

dogmilk
Image Credits

Here is a link to a side by side comparison of dogbane and milkweed shoots. The photo on the right is milkweed. In the field comparisons may not be as obvious and this illustrates.

A wonderful way to prepare the shoots after washing and removing leaves is to chop the shoots into several pieces then boil them for 3 minutes in salted water and shock them in ice water to stop the cooking.

Drain well and just either add butter and S&P or sauté in butter along with some chopped garlic, onions or shallots….”heavenly manna” as my granny and my mother always said! Either way you won’t be disappointed.

  1. YOUNG BUDS (before the fragrant blossoms open).

The bud below is in the perfect stage to be harvested for a tasty meal. Check for any signs of eggs or larvae before picking. Of course leave them alone if you discover these monarch larvae.

Using a sharp knife or clipping scissors dedicated to foraging uses makes a clean cut and you are less likely to get sap where you don’t want it. When severed, gently place them in a bag and then into your foraging basket and prepare them as soon as possible for the best fresh vegetable flavor.

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Milkweed flower buds look like small heads of broccoli and its wild flowers are a great pot herb. Our favorite way to serve these tasty morsels is to batter fry them. You can also cut the individual buds off of the head and drop them into a steaming pot of wild meat stew over an open fire. They make a great addition to tomato, split pea or potato soup, or any creamed soup – really any soup or stew at all.

Preparation of Fried Bud Clusters

I have nibbled a single raw bud and did not find it bitter as many of the foraging books claim. However to prepared milkweed buds for frying, pre-cook them in at least one water for one minute as described earlier.

(There is debate about whether to cook them in waters but I opt to do it once if for no other reason than making sure all tiny non-monarch critters are taken care of. I screened for Monarch larvae before picking any part of the plant).

Then lay them on a paper towel and allow to dry. You may pat them dry. Dip bud clusters into the batter (recipe below), and immediately gently place into a medium hot frying pan that contains a generous amount of oil. If you can hear them sizzle as they hit the oil the temperature is right.

Promptly turn the heat down to medium and allow them to cook on one side until tender and golden, then turn and do the same on the other side. This takes only a few minutes so stay with the pan, (approximately 3 minutes on each side). A thick slice of juicy tomato with mozzarella cheese with basil pesto is a great addition to this meal.

I used coconut oil for this however you can choose whatever oil you like. Olive oil works well too. I would not suggest using butter since it would probably burn before the frying was completed.

For the batter I used amaranth and buckwheat flours (you can use any flour you like), whole milk, baking powder, baking soda, sea salt and pepper.

Fry Batter Recipe

Estimated amounts only. Recipe is forgiving.

In a bowl mix ingredients in order listed:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Oil for frying (I use either olive or coconut oil but any oil you like will work)
  • Whole milk, enough to make a dipping batter of medium thick consistency, adding milk slowly.

Make sure the buds are as dry as possible because you want the batter to stick to them.

DIPPING MILKWEED BUDS IN BATTER

milkweed batter

You may choose your favorite dipping sauce or these batter fried vegetables can stand alone in their succulent goodness. There is 345 mg. of potassium and 4 grams of protein in each serving.(2 cups) For a comparison there are 322 mgs. of potassium in one medium banana. (Daylily Article to Follow Soon)

milkweed-fried

  1. YOUNG SEED PODS

Look for the tiny pods just four or five days after the flowers wilt. They grow out of each little floret which is why you find them in tight bunches of three to five pods. They don’t all mature at the same time, so you will find several pods of different sizes all snuggled up together. If you just select the pod that is the right size – not too big, not too small, (about 1” to 2”) you will still leave enough for the plant to reproduce and hopefully keep your garden/field producing a healthy crop to harvest next season.

Don’t eat any part of the common milkweed plant in its raw form.

seed pods

Several Seed Pods Growing in Clusters

Ways to Prepare and Serve Young Milkweed Pods

Pick pods at about 1” to 2” in length when the inside seeds have not yet matured. The seeds, which are arranged in overlapping rows, contain a cluster of white, silky, filament-like hairs known as the coma. You’ve seen them floating in the air as summer fades and the pods dry up and pop open.

  1. STUFFED: Use the larger milkweed pods, 3 to possibly 4 inches, for stuffing after removing the coma and seeds. The pods are still green at this point. A 4” pod can sometimes be too mature. You can gently squeeze the pod to make sure it is pliable and soft. If it seems stiff at all then it will be too tough to eat.

Sometimes I use my meatloaf recipe and stuff the half pods with that mixture and generously top with cheese. You can use any filling you’d prefer. A ricotta and herb filling would be nice.

Another great tasting filling, perhaps to use as an appetizer, consists of mixing a 4 oz. package of creamed cheese with some finely chopped sweet onion, a couple of crispy slices of bacon, some salt and pepper to taste. Roll this into a log and cut to lengths that fit into the ½ pods that have been prepared then top with your favorite cheese.

Prepping Pods for Stuffing:

I boil the pods in two “waters” first and pour off the water as mentioned earlier. Instead of boiling them for the 8 minutes which can make them soggy, I started steaming them for 8 minutes or until tender.

This is a much more satisfactory option. Drain on paper towels and stuff a ½ pod with filling of your choice. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment and bake in oven for 15-20 minutes at 350° – 375°.

  1. SOUP– Give the 2” pods two “water” changes then boil for about 6 minutes, drain  and chill in the refrigerator till ready to use. These will keep well for about 2 days. Chop them small and add to soup near the end of cooking.
  • QUICHES– We add them to quiches every season. Prepare the same as for soup above, chop and add to a quiche recipe.
  1. MILKWEED CHIPS Chop the prepped pods into larger chunks and sauté or slice and deep fry them for milkweed chips. These can be eaten as is or added to a salad. These can be added to quiche as well.
  2. IN SAUCES: Dice the prepped pods and add them to sauces like alfredo, marinara or tomato. Use your imagination to find what your family will enjoy. If they are skittish about eating foraged foods just hide them in their favorite sauce! You can reveal the mystery ingredient after they have reached for a second helping!
  3. FREEZE: I am going to experiment with freezing pods this season. First I plan on using 3 “waters”, one full minute each time. Then plunge the pods into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. The three waters removes toxins and stops the enzyme actions which can cause a loss of flavor, texture and color. If they are not blanched long enough, the enzymes will remain active even during frozen storage and can cause off flavors and toughening. The prepped frozen pods should be good for up to 3 months.
  4. PLAIN YOUNG PODS: These are great spring vegetables any way you prepare them. Given two “water” treatments, then steamed for 7 to 8 minutes, add some sweet cream butter and a dash of salt. At this point you can give them a quick butter sauté` if desired. There’s no bitterness or after taste, just good eating!

Some foragers remove the inner membrane, then return the silk and seeds to the pod. This process is time intensive and I honestly can’t tell the taste difference so why bother? Keep it simple and just steaming those small pods.

One last option for the young pods is to do 2 “waters”, dry well and coat with egg wash and corn bread, S & P, then deep fry. They are a lot like fried okra without any of the slimy feel that some folks shun.

  1. OTHER USES:

The end–of- season brown pods make a lovely addition to autumn door wreaths. As children, we used them as cradles for our clothespin dolls.

There are other creative ways to prepare milkweed parts like pickling, using in slaws, or cooking the immature silk. The seven ways mentioned above are what we regularly use at our house in season.

Final Reflections

Wild foraging is a mainstay for many societies all over the world. There is something to be learned by discovering our dependence on things in the natural world.

milkweed flower

In recent years, I’ve been amazed by the increased interest in foraging wild foods. The number of books, guides, videos and classes on identifying, harvesting and cooking with foraged foods continues to grow. It is happening in cities, suburbia and in rural areas everywhere. There are restaurants that have been serving wild foraged mushrooms for a long time but now the variety of wild menu offerings is expanding.

I know that many BDS readers have already developed the skill of hunting for and finding good foods, then using them in unique ways to enhance preparedness. In the comments, if you are one of those, we’d love to hear about your favorite foraged foods and how you prepare them.

If there is a particular plant you’d like to discover more about, let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

Blessings, Donna


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