One of my favorite wild spring edibles is milkweed. You heard that right…milkweed is edible and delicious! When cooked up, it tastes and has a similar texture to asparagus, and yes, you can harvest them sustainably without any harm to the Monarchs.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you how to identify, sustainably harvest, and prepare this amazing wild edible. There are a few precautions and toxic look-alikes, so be sure to read those sections before planning to head out on a foraging mission.
What is Milkweed?
First of all, let’s talk about what milkweed even is, for those of you who aren’t sure. Milkweed is a flowering plant, generally found in the Northern Hemisphere that belongs to a genus of about 140 species of herbaceous perennial flowering plants. Among these is Asclepias syiaca, the one we refer to as common milkweed and is the only one I am referring to and describing today.
You always want to make sure that you can 100% identify a plant before harvesting it to eat as many plants have toxic or poisonous look-alikes.
To get started, look to the stems. Each milkweed plant comes up in the spring as slender, unbranched stems no thicker than an inch and a half. At the top of each stem is a few oval-shaped leaves whose undersides sport soft, velvety fine hairs.
One way to help you identify milkweed is to snap off a stem. If it’s milkweed, you’ll see a milky substance (from which the plant gets its common name).
Milkweed typically grows to be about 3-6 feet tall. The leaves of milkweed are opposite and are attached to the stem in pairs. Milkweed leaves have an oblong shape with smooth edges.
In their early stages, milkweed flowers resemble miniature broccoli and are found in the axils of the leaves. They later open up into round, pinkish-purple flower heads with numerous florets.
The seedpods are sickle-shaped, pointed at one end, and have a warty surface. They can grow anywhere from 2-5 inches long when mature and contain silky “fluff” inside.
As with many other wild edible plants, milkweed has a toxic look-alike…dogbane.
Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) is a plant that looks very similar to common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It is often mistaken for the monarch butterfly plant, but it’s not!
***Dogbane is toxic to humans and other mammals. It can cause cardiac arrest, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and diarrhea if eaten. The milky sap from stems can cause blisters on the skin.
Both dogbane and common milkweed have milky sap when you break off a leaf, and opposite, oval-shaped leaves, but only common milkweed has a hairy stem. When mature, the dogbane stem branches in the upper portion of the plant. The flowers also look quite different. Common milkweed flowers are pinkish, large, and ball-shaped, whereas dogbane flowers are whitish-green and in small clusters.
A good way to tell these two plants apart is to look at the stems. Branching dogbane shoots, Apocynum cannabinum, are more slender than milkweed shoots, have a slightly red tinge, and are smooth.
Are All Species Edible?
Out of all the different species of Milkweed, I have only heard of two that are edible. These are Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).
As always, be 100% sure of a plant’s identity before consuming.
Yes, common milkweed is edible. Although milkweed is considered toxic raw, the young tender shoots, leaves, flowers, and seed pods are all edible and delicious when cooked.
Sustainably Harvesting Milkweed & Monarch Protection
There are a lot of people out there that will argue that foraging milkweed will somehow hurt the monarchs, and on the surface, I can see their point. It makes sense that by eating the milkweed (the plant that Monarchs lay their eggs on) you will be destroying the one plant that Monarchs depend on for survival. But what if I told you that this is just not true? What if I told you that eating milkweed creates a mutually beneficial situation for us and the Monarchs. It’s true!
While some people might think that cutting back Milkweed to the ground harms them, in truth it does not. In fact, it does a number of things for all parties involved. We benefit by getting to eat a delicious and healthy vegetable, the Monarch caterpillars benefit by getting fresh and tender leaves to feed their young, and the plant benefits by growing denser with disturbance.
Did you know that most of the milkweed’s growth happens below the surface? It’s true. Common milkweed spreads by underground rhizomes. It is possible to see only a fraction of the milkweed’s growth because the plant can continue to spread underground. When milkweed is cut back to the ground, it has the amazing ability to resprout from its rhizome.
With that said, It’s equally important to always be an ethical forager. This means never taking all of the milkweed shoots in any single patch that we come across. By only harvesting a small amount from any one patch, we can help stagger the harvest of flowers and pods for us, as well as leaves for incoming monarchs. As we collect from a patch of milkweed, it’s always good practice to leave plenty behind for the Monarchs as well as other pollinators who also love this plant for its beautiful flowers.
Another ethical consideration and thing to be on the lookout for are caterpillars. If you see a monarch caterpillar on a plant, leave that plant alone-they were there first.
Where Does Milkweed Grow?
Milkweed is a widespread and somewhat weedy species known from most of the eastern United States and the easternmost prairie states as well as southern Canada. It prefers sunny locations and can be frequently found in fence rows, on roadsides, in fields, and in prairies and pastures.
Select young milkweed stems that are six to eight inches tall. The stems should be tender enough to snap off easily by hand without the need for pruners. However, you may want to wear gloves since the milky sap can get messy and sticky, and some have reported skin rashes from the milky latex.
Sometimes, you can get away with eating the tops of older stems. You can test the tenderness of an older stem by trying to break it off with your hand. If you can, and it feels juicy, then it is probably good to eat. If it doesn’t snap off easily, skip it, it’s probably too fibrous to be tasty.
Precautions for Eating Milkweed
For some people, milkweed can cause some gastrointestinal problems. Start off eating a very small amount and see how your body reacts to it. If no problems occur, then add a bit more next time.
How Best to Prepare Milkweed Shoots
Proper cooking of milkweed ensures the elimination of its bitter and slightly toxic milky juice. Luckily, the toxins are water-soluble and can easily be removed by boiling them in water. When properly prepared, common milkweed becomes one of the most delicious wild edibles there is.
Cook the milkweed shoots in salted boiling water for 30 seconds, then submerge them in ice water for about a minute to stop the cooking process. This is referred to as blanching.
Next, transfer the blanched milkweed to a pan with butter to fry or saute them with other ingredients such as garlic or onion. I typically saute them for 1 minute or so, or until they’re about the same as cooked asparagus. The milkweed shoots should not be mushy, but tender crisp.