Milkweed is a shining example of why we shouldn’t believe everything that we read. It carries with it, to this day, many myths that have traveled from mouth to ear and onward without fact-checking or personal experience. Myth number one is that it’s toxic, myth number two is that it’s bitter, and myth number three if you choose to ignore the first two, is that even if we could eat it, we shouldn’t because eating from the plants won’t leave enough for Monarch butterflies who rely on them. None of these are true.
Can You Eat Milkweed? The myths of toxicity and bitterness are now thought to have originated from someone who had mistaken common dogbane for common milkweed, which is easy enough to do in its young shoot stage. This “someone” was Euell Gibbons, the most well-known foraging advocate of his time, and he disseminated this judgment based on mistaken identity in his wildly popular foraging books. For generations of wild food writers to come, this information was taken as gospel and parroted without any further inquiry, until our dear ol’ Sam Thayer came along and curiously, cautiously, and diligently, spent years studying and eating milkweed with his own eyes and mouth and came to the conclusion that we are all so lucky to enjoy now: milkweed is delicious. I might be confident enough in Sam to parrot this information like other writers did Eull, but in this case, I’ve been eating milkweed for almost two decades now, so I can tell you myself that it’s hands down one of the best vegetables, from the wild or the garden.
As for the monarch myth, it is true that monarch caterpillars rely on the foliage of certain milkweeds as their sole food source, but it’s not true that human consumption of the plant is inherently a detriment to the butterfly. It can actually be a nice partnership, given that the caterpillars only eat the leaves, and humans eat the other parts, plucking a bud here or a pod there, leaving the stalk standing and the leaves intact for the caterpillars to fuel up. As I see it, the real threat to monarchs and milkweed is large-scale habitat loss to industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. The more people start seeing milkweed as a food crop that they love enough to grow at home, or at least not mow down, the better chance the monarchs have of making their tremendous migration to Mexico every year.
Where to Find Milkweed There are over 100 species of milkweed in North America, and some of them are toxic. I am very specifically only talking about Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) here. Luckily, as the name implies, it’s the most common variety. This species’ native range spans the eastern seaboard and reaches westward, covering about two-thirds of the lower 48. It’s a familiar sight in hayfields, pastures, meadows, sunny field edges, roadsides, and “waste spaces.” It’s so familiar that it’s considered a noxious weed in some places.
You can scout for milkweed spots throughout the year by looking for last year’s stalks still standing with the iconic teardrop-shaped seedpod husks. Milkweed is a perennial, and it also spreads by seed, so there will be new shoots in mid-spring wherever you see the old stalks. Before you fill your baskets and have a feast, remember it’s always a good idea to eat a small amount of any food you’ve never tried before. Some people have reported digestive upset from eating too much milkweed. I’ve never met anyone who's had trouble with it, nor do I know how much “too much” is, but it’s always smart to start small and wait a day to make sure a new food agrees with you.
Milkweed Shoots The shoots resemble asparagus in that they’re thick, juicy, green stems with small leaves still upright, clasped against the stem. At this stage, once you’re sure you haven’t confused it with dogbane, you can snap off the shoots wherever they break easily, usually at least an inch or two off the ground. This will quickly coat your fingers with a sticky film of the plant’s trademark milky sap, so I like to designate one hand for picking and I don’t touch my face with that hand as the sap can be irritating.
I don’t harvest many shoots, only taking a few meals each spring in patches where they’re looking crowded. By taking the shoot, the plant may not resprout that year, and I happen to be partial to the buds and pods, so I like to leave the shoots and wait for those. The shoots I do take home, though, I relish. I like to blanch them in salted, boiling water for one to two minutes and then either drench them in butter and lemon and eat as is, or toss them on a hot grill for a little char, into a hot, fast stir-fry, or into an ice bath to shock and then chop and add to cold salads, or pop in the freezer. Think of them like a green bean in the body of asparagus.
Milkweed Buds After the shoot lengthens into a mature stem of 3 to 6 feet and the velvety, ovate, opposite leaves expand, you will see, emerging from the top third of the stem, flower buds. The buds will begin as tightly packed clusters, resembling broccoli florets, expanding and loosening as they move toward flowering. I like to harvest them when they’re a globe shaped cluster about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter with all of the buds still closed and relatively compact.
Normally there are many buds on each plant and they pinch off easily between thumb and forefinger, so I’ll walk through the patch, plucking roughly one of every four buds, never taking all the buds from one plant. Again, be prepared for the milky sap and choose a picking-hand and stick to it. They wilt quickly on a hot day, so I’ll pick into a blickey with a damp towel, and get them into a cooler as soon as I can.
Sam Thayer also had a good observation here, suggesting that we check the bases of the buds for baby Monarch caterpillars, as that’s where they’re often living at that stage. I’ve found this to be true, and I’ll brush them off onto the remaining buds on the same plant. I collect the buds in bulk for fresh eating and freezing. I love to blanch them the same way as the shoots and then use them in any dish calling for broccoli. It doesn’t taste like broccoli, which actually has a much more robust flavor, while milkweed is mild and sweet, the form and texture is very similar to a broccoli floret.
Milkweed Flowers Next come the flowers, which you’ll often see on the plant at the same time as the buds, as they have a staggered maturation. Each bud in the globe-shaped clusters will open into a tiny star-shaped blossom, making the whole cluster look like fireworks. The flowers range from dusky purple, pink, or cream and I collect them in the same exact way as the buds, sometimes on the same day if my timing is right and they’re both present.
You will definitely want to shake the clusters of flowers before dropping them into your basket (or your mouth), as you will notice, a milkweed patch is a smorgasbord for all kinds of insects-the bug-watching is actually a big part of the fun. The flowers are less of a bulk food item than the buds, but I still collect a few clusters every year to throw handfuls of the sweet, snappy blossoms onto salads (green, egg, potato, fruit—they’re perfect for all salads), sandwiches, onto fish or chicken, or to make any dessert more dazzling.
Milkweed Pods After the flowers have been pollinated, come those familiar but strange, warty, teardrop-shaped, green seedpods. These, you probably notice more in late summer and fall when they split and let their seeds fly off, floating on their silky, white, parachutes. Before the seeds and their silks mature, though, they’re actually a tender, juicy, mass inside that pod. I like to pick my pods when they are 2.5 inches or smaller. A pod less than 1.5 inches will be great for whole eating, and between 1.5 and 2.5 inches will be perfect for scooping out the inside. You want to use your pods within a day or two of picking or else they get oddly tough.
Think of the small pods like okra. You can blanch, then fry in crunchy batter and serve with a creamy dipping sauce and watch them disappear. You can also treat them as simply as the buds, blanching or boiling until tender and serving any way you would a green bean or broccoli.
The larger pods are for splitting open and scooping out the white (make sure it’s completely white, if not, it’s too mature) pre-silk. This white mass should be juicy and tender enough to pinch through. I love to boil the presilk in salty water, drain, and then use it on top of hot chili, stew, pasta, or traybakes in place of melted cheese. You’ll be surprised at how convincing it is.
Milkweed Seeds Once the pods reach about 3 inches, they’ll be fibrous and inedible, but still keep an eye on them so you can get some seeds. You’ll know the seeds are mature when you see pods in the patch start to split open and spill the silky white fluff inside. This is the time to collect some pods to plant some seeds at home. You can also use the silk as a wind indicator while you’re deer hunting.
Growing milkweed from seed is easy. You can either plant the seeds in fall directly where you want them outside, or, for a little more control, they do really well with this winter-sowing method. Some people scoff at using milkweed silk as a wind indicator in the deer woods, preferring the bottled powder. I’ve tried both and I find that milkweed silk rides the wind much farther, is more visible in all lights, shows the nuances in wind currents more clearly, and, on a cold day, it’s awfully nice to stick your frozen hand into a pocket lined with milkweed silk, which is more insulative than goosedown.