BLOG 38: There are 14 different types of Milkweeds in Canada that are hosts to the Monarch butterfly. Asclepias syriaca, or the Common Milkweed, is found where we live in Eastern Canada and cannot be found in the far western or northern sections of our country. This plant is fondly recognized by many in our region due to the knowledge of the incredible monarch butterfly’s annual journey from Canada to Mexico. In fact it is the gorgeous Monarch caterpillars' only source of food. One can grow their own if they have garden space in a far corner of your property. Be forewarned they spread through their rhizomes and seeds and can get out of control if you let them! Good news is you will have many butterfly visitors to enjoy. Elder Canadians know of milkweed as a lifesaver in War World II as the fluff of the milkweed seed pods were used to make life jackets for the soldiers. Historically, the Common milkweed was used to make rope and fabric in Russia and France, the fluff was used to stuff mattresses and pillows, the milky juice to treat warts. Milkweeds have a host of medicinal uses that I will not get into in this article because I want you to eat it! If you forage using the ‘wildcrafting’ method you will be harvesting responsibly and not harming the incredible Monarch butterfly. You will be sharing this wonderful plant as Nature intended. You can show your gratitude by collecting mature seeds in the Autumn and planting them nearby in full sun areas.
The Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a delicious vegetable that has been enjoyed by many forgers for hundreds of years. Forgers eat common milkweed from late spring to late summer. With a two season long harvesting opportunity, the common milkweed is an easy go to food source. One eats the shoots in the spring, the flower buds and sweet smelling blooms in the summer. The young seed pods are collected in late summer. Common milkweed has been noted to taste like broccoli, green beans or asparagus but I taste a unique mild ‘green’ flavour (if that makes sense). I have steamed the buds and sprinkled with lemon but I haven't tried the shoots yet as they can be confused with toxic dogbane shoots. I will eat some next spring, though, as I have carefully marked a thriving stand of the common milkweed during last week’s foraging and will return when the shoots emerge next year in the exact area.
Common Milkweed has been confused by some with toxic Dogbane (Apocynum sp.). The best hack to tell them apart is by cutting the stem in half. The Milkweed stem is hollow with lots of milky juice flowing out. Dogbane’s stem is filled and not hollow. It leaks a small amount of milky juice. Milkweed has one straight stem with no branches. Dogbane branches out as it grows. Remember to never eat anything unless you are positive you have the right plant. In fact some Milkweed varieties are toxic. In our area in the highlands of Ontario and Quebec we might confuse Common Milkweed with Swamp Milkweed. The difference between these two is the colour of the flowers, the shape of the leaves and location. Common Milkweed has medium pink/ light pink or white flowers. Has large rounded or pointed leaves and live in full sun fields, edgelands and waste areas. Swamp Milkweed has gorgeous fuchsia flowers, skinny long leaves and lives on the edge of swamps and lakes. However the unique flowers, round bud clusters and tear drop shaped okra-like seed pods of the Common Milkweed are easily recognizable to everyone and simply delicious and nutritious.
A common error in foraging circles and misguided books is that the Common Milkweed is toxic with cardiac-glycosides and has a disappointingly bitter taste to humans and therefore needs special preparation. The flowers, buds, leaves and shoots are to be blanched in boiling water for a few minutes and then throw out the boiling water. One is urged to repeat the process three times before cooking! This is truly unfortunate as the laborious preparation discourages foragers from wanting to pick them. Experienced forager Samuel Thayer who regularly consumes Common Milkweed knew it was not bitter or toxic so set out to prove it with research and taste testing with hundreds of his students. Not one person said it tasted bitter! They all loved eating the Common Milkweed. Thayer also never blanches them repeatedly in boiling water and also tried eating the plant raw and found it to be bitter. He traced the error to Euell Gibbins and his 1962 book ‘Stalking The Wild Asparagus’ and speculated Gibbins may have mistakenly tasted the bitter and toxic Dogbane.
When this article is published the Common Milkweed will be producing its delicious teardrop shaped pods and to temp you into foraging this safe and delicious vegetable I searched and found an easy vegan recipe for you to try. Enjoy!
Buffalo Wing Style Milkweed Pods
Total time: 40 minutes
This Main dish was published in August 2013
Collect a dozen or more Common Milkweed pods that are 2 ½ inches in size ( larger ones are not fleshy enough and are beginning to fluff)
Preheat oven to 350°F
1 1/2 cup of Panko or breadcrumbs
1/4 cup of flour
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 teaspoon each of paprika oregano cayenne and turmeric
A half a cup of almond milk
1/2 cup of water
Mix dry ingredients together. Mix egg, almond milk and water together then blend in the dry ingredients. Mix well. Dip milkweed pods into batter and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes when crisp. Take out and place in a bowl add in your favourite wing sauce enough to evenly coat and mix. Place Milkweed pods back on the baking sheet and cook for an additional 10 minutes.