Milkweed is a plant that many people have either a love or hate relationship with.
Butterfly lovers recognize and adore them. Milkweed is the only host plant that the monarch butterfly will lay eggs on. Most farmers despise the persistent weed in hayfields and pastures. Children love to release the fluffy down insides into the wind in the fall, releasing the seeds much the way they do dandelion fluff. During World War II, American school children collected the floss from the pods for filling life preservers for the armed forces. This same fluff is being used to stuff jackets, comforters and pillows by a Nebraska company under the name of Ogallalla Down. Many believe that this is an important fiber of the future with insulating properties that surpass that of goose down.
The stalk fibers were used extensively by the Native Americans for making string or rope. They also regularly used the plant as a food item.
This is no average weed – in fact, I prefer to refer to it as one of my favorite volunteer vegetables! The milkweed produces four different edible food products, all of them delicious.
To prepare any part of the common milkweed plant as food, you must first boil the plant part for 10 minutes. Then strain off and dump the water. Serve or prepare at this point for any recipe. Any of the other edible milkweed species require that you follow these directions of boiling and dumping the water twice.
There are well over 100 species of milkweed in North America, but not all are edible. However, the common milkweed Asclepias syriaca is one of the most recognized wild perennial plants in North America. It can be found along the eastern half of the continent – and west to the middle of the Great Plains, except for the Deep South and far north (but well into Canada).
The plants have a distinctive form. They have large, sturdy and oblong leaves in opposite pairs on a thick, unbranched stem. It obtains a height of four to seven feet if left uncut. The flowers are a ball of very fragrant and drooping pink, purple, and white flowers.
In early spring about the time the oak leaves emerge, look for the young milkweed shoots that are coming up near last year’s plants. The shoot resembles asparagus but with small opposite leaves that lay flat against the stem. Until they are about eight inches tall, the shoots make a delicious boiled vegetable. They taste a little like a cross between asparagus and green beans, yet have a distinct flavor all their own. As with asparagus, as the shoots grows taller the bottom of the stem becomes woody. Until it reaches a height of about two feet, you can break out the top of the shoot but at this stage, remove any leaves before cooking.
Note of caution!The immature shoots of milkweed look somewhat like Dogbane, which is mildly poisonous. The milkweed stem stays thick all the way up to the last set of leaves. Dogbane is a much thinner, slightly red and branching stalk. Identification is much easier this time of year because milkweed does not branch and has distinctive pointed seed pods.
Eating milkweed even when prepared properly does not agree with the digestive systems of all people. This is no different than someone with lactose intolerance – but should be addressed in the beginning. Try this vegetable the first time in moderation after proper preparation. Eat just a small amount and make absolutely certain that your body is compatible with the plant. You will be glad you did.
Do not eat mature leaves, stems, seeds or pods. Make no mistake – this plant is absolutely delicious if fixed properly using the proper part from the proper plant at the proper time prepared the proper way.
In early summer, the milkweed flower buds become a wonderful boiled dish – after the bugs are removed. They resemble round heads of broccoli but have the same flavor of the shoots. Use in stir fries, casseroles, side dishes, soup, rice, pasta, etc.
In late summer the flowers turn into pointed, okra-like pods. These are wonderful when harvested no larger than two inches in length. The insides are too small at this point to worry about removing. The silk refers to the immature seeds and fluff inside the immature seed pods. This should be harvested from the pods longer than two inches – but before it matures and becomes cottony and fibrous. Your thumbnail should easily cut into the silk after it has been removed from the outer pod along the faint line that runs lengthwise along the side. The silk should be tender, without any hint of dryness that can indicate an over-mature pod.
Cook the silk wads with rice, pasta, or casseroles. The silks have a slightly sweet and mild flavor that holds everything together well. It mimics melted cheese in recipes, adding flavor and texture. The pods have the same chemical compound found in commercial meat tenderizer. The Native Americans would use the pods to help tenderize buffalo meat. Use the prepared pods in stew, with cheese, or as a boiled veggie, alone or in a mix.
One of my favorite new ways to fix the immature pods comes from Ashleigh Harris, co-owner of a Petoskey, Mich., based business, Michigan Mushroom Market, LLC. Check out her delicious premium products on the internet at www.michigan mushroommarket.com and on Facebook.
Harris boils the whole, immature pods for 10 minutes. She strains off the water and dries the pods on paper towels, then dusts the pods with flour and browns them in hot oil in a skillet. Season as desired. These are wonderful! The outside is crunchy but when cooked, the insides turn into something that reminds me of melty mozzarella cheese. As Harris posted, they taste almost as if they were stuffed. Serve with dip sauce if you like….My mouth is watering thinking of these as I write this!