Size: 3-5 feet high
Asclepias Syriaca and Asclepias Speciosa

There are several common species of Milkweed. I'm only describing the two most common edible species. That's right, you can eat these things, if they are good enough for butterflys, then why aren't we eating them?

That's a very good question, because every part of the plant is edible, and tasty. A. Syriaca is found throughout the eastern United States, while A. Speciosa grows throughout the western United States. Both species look very similar. The plants are tall with long, oval leaves that come to a rounded point at both ends of the leaf. The leaves are found in opposite pairs along the stem. The undersides are slightly paler than the top, and covered with fine hairs.

Milkweed features small purple or white flowers which bloom in summer. After flowering, they bear green seed pods about 4 inches long and covered with soft spines and hairs. They eventually split open and release a number of seeds with streamers of silk.

The stem of milkweed is covered with fine hairs. This should be your way to make sure you aren't confusing it with the poisonous Dogbane.

Making a Most Memorable Meal of Milkweed

In spring, the young shoots may be eaten raw or cooked as asparagus. If you gather shoots longer than 6 or 8 inches they will be tough and bitter, so stick to shorter plants.

Leaves may also be collected in spring, up until the point at which flower buds form sometime during summer. They are a potherb, but make sure to cook them with at least two changes of boiling water, otherwise they will taste rather bitter.

The unopened flowers and young seed pods may be cooked the same way as the leaves. The unopened flowers may be collected thoughout summer and into early fall. They are dull and wooly before cooking, but afterwards they turn a bright green similar to broccoli. The pods are a little trickier, you need to collect them before they feel elastic when you press them with your fingers. Once you boil them everything kind of congeals into a glue-like mass, but it tastes good. It makes a very good thickener in soups.

Lastly drying the milky sap from the leaves or stems provides something similar to chewing gum. You dry the sap in one of two ways, the first, and in my oppinion, best, is to put the sap in a covered container, such as a cookie tray. You should cover it with cloth, otherwise bugs will get in and ruin it. Take it in at night so the morning dew does not undo all the time it spent out in the sun. After a few days, it should be done. If you don't have that kind of patience, it can be be dried over a slow fire.

Have fun eating Milkweed! Mmm.

Hall, Alan. The Wild Food Trail Guide. Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston. 1945.

Milkweed, fuel for some of the animal kingdom's deadly clowns, is both food and toxin. The toxin intake is limited by various strategies and exploited by various creatures.

Several insects eat milkweed. Notable among them are the larval stages of the Monarch butterfly. The less known but adorable Tussock moth caterpillar, as well as all stages of the four eyed milkweed beetle and the yclepted milkweed bug all also benefit from special relationships with milkweed. Even among aphids there seems to be a variety that leans toward wearing the garish orange/black clown suit.

After eating milkweed these insects become at best unpalatable and emetic to their predators. If swallowed and retained they may kill as well be killed. One projects an anthropomorphic wish that predators will learn from their mistakes and simply avoid eating them. Because their coloring is so "obvious" and because most of them tend to cluster in large and easy to see groups it does seem predators learn to mostly skip over them even if a few are nibbled in the process.

To emphasize a point, milkweed can nourish and can kill. It must be approached carefully. If you are a person eating milkweed several changes of cooking water are recommended. If you are a bug other methods are employed. The monarch instars 1 to 3 do a maneuver called "trenching", only eating through a few layers of the leaf, thus avoiding too much toxin. Instar 4 chews little circles out of the leaf, also reducing sap flow. The 5th instar eats everything but "they will sometimes chew a notch in the leaf's petiole, causing the leaf to hang down. This behavior is known as flagging" and also reduces sap flow to the day's dinner. 1

Other tastier insects totally avoid the toxin of milkweed but adopt the coloration of the milkweed eaters, gaining a reputation they do not deserve. The Viceroy butterfly (adult stage only) mimics the Monarch and birds learn to avoid them, those scary Halloween clowns in costumes.

The other day I noticed a swarm of milkweed bugs (harmless except to milkweed plants) on the pod I was harvesting in the field next to my work...seeds of which were destined to decorate the dry stems surrounding my front porch for my daughter's party tonight. The house is decked out as a cross between a pumpkin patch, an abandoned garden, and a graveyard. Those seeds will later float to spots, spots where they will germinate and next year mature among the many "weeds" I coddle in my yard. They will also spread to my neighbors' yards who will in turn mostly "weed" them out but a few will remain. The seeds' silks are sparkling, pure, pure white and oh so pretty. Milkweed needs to be coddled, not only for its beauty (it has a wondrous flower) but for its entertainment value and for its niche in the life of the monarch, viceroy, and other friends.

Another year, another orange/black critter; I witnessed a posse of tussock moth caterpillars. Google image search on "milkweed tussock moth". They look like a Yorkshire Terrier, long hair dragging on the ground ... except they are orange and black. They cluster together to project their fierceness to the world but I found them adorable. That patch of milkweed is gone. Labeled as weeds and removed for hybrid zinnias. Sad.

Halloween brings ripened seed pods and thoughts of costumes. Orange and black prevails. Milkweed ties the end of Blue October2 together for me.

"It's also important to create a source of food for young pollinators and provide overwintering places for eggs and larvae. To do so, allow a corner of your backyard to naturalize with wild grasses, weeds and wildflowers (including Queen Anne's lace, thistle, burdock, borage, milkweed, evening primrose), and plant extra dill, parsley and carrots, which swallowtail butterfly larvae consume in quantity."3

Research sources:

Milk"weed` (?), n. Bot.

Any plant of the genera Asclepias and Acerates, abounding in a milky juice, and having its seed attached to a long silky down; silkweed. The name is also applied to several other plants with a milky juice, as to several kinds of spurge.


© Webster 1913.

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