I want to begin this post by addressing a couple of issues concerning the milkweed plant.
Issue #1: Almost every time I see a Facebook or blog post on milkweed, there is at least one person who expresses concern. “But isn’t it toxic?” “Doesn’t it irritate your skin and burn your eyes?”
The only question I have is, why are wild foods judged so harshly? Picking and juicing grapes or peeling tomatoes will cause my hands to turn red and burn for hours. Ever rubbed your eye after slicing a jalapeño??? It feels like the fire of a thousand suns is searing into your brain, yet no one uses that as a basis to stop eating them. This is something that I encourage you to research for yourself and make your own decision. I know a lot of people who eat it, some who have eaten it for 30+ years, and none of them have ever had even the slightest ill effects.
Now, I understand that different people have different reactions to everything. So, if you are trying something for the first time, just eat a small amount and see how you feel. One concern with wild foods is that doctors don’t test you for allergies to them. If you have food allergies, be very cautious and be sure to study the species of wild plant to make sure it is not related to a food you are allergic to. For a person with no sensitivities to the plant to suffer illness, they would have to eat a very large quantity of it.
This is just my two cents. Do some research and make your own decision, and be sure to positively identify the plant. There are many species of milkweed, and not all of them are food friendly. I could go on all day about the fear mongering and society’s war against wild edibles, but I’d rather get to the good stuff.
Issue #2: Milkweed is the primary, and possibly the sole food source for Monarch caterpillars. Milkweed is SUPER abundant in Kentucky, but it’s still important to be considerate of the caterpillars. I never take all the buds from any stalk, and if I see a caterpillar on a plant, I don’t harvest from that plant at all.
Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed is the plant you’ll be looking for. There are many different varieties of milkweed, but not all of them are edible. It stands three to six feet tall and produces milky sap when broken. It has one straight stem with opposite oblong leaves alternating down the stem. The pink flowers or green buds look like little pom-poms when in bloom.
The most common look alike in Kentucky is Apocynum cannabinum, or hemp dogbane. It’s in the same species as milkweed, so it has a lot of the same characteristics and grows in a lot of the same places. The dead giveaway for dogbane is that it branches and milkweed doesn’t. (but it’s more difficult to tell them apart in early stages of growth.)
The edible parts of the milkweed plants are the young shoots and leaves, under 12 inches tall (They get too tough and fuzzy when they are bigger), and the buds, flowers, and young pods of the adult plant. You can find a ton of information on milkweed (including how to prepare it) in this excerpt from Forager’s Harvest, written by Sam Thayer, one of the most well know foragers in the United States. You will find many articles about how to prepare milkweed, and many of them will encourage boiling multiple times in changes of water as you would pokeweed. I personally think that this would do nothing but remove flavor and vitamins from the plant, and I don’t know anyone who does that. In fact some people eat it raw, although I am not one of those people. I personally would suggest one quick parboil just to leach out sap and tenderize it before cooking.
The part of the plant that is in season now is the buds and flowers.
When you collect the flowers or buds, the first thing you should do before cooking or storing them is submerge them in cold water, take the bowl outside, and shake off all the bugs that surface. I think I shook/flicked at least 20 bugs off of this one batch. Store them in the refrigerator if you don’t plan to use them right away.
Milkweed Bud & Cheddar Soup
4 cups milkweed bud clusters
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 tbsp. butter (½ stick)
2 cups milk (or half and half)
1-14.5 oz. can chicken broth
½ cup celery, diced
½ med. onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp. nutmeg
8 oz. cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil, add milkweed buds and boil 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Sauté onion and garlic for 3 minutes, add celery and continue cooking another 3-5 minutes until tender. Set aside.
Melt butter in sauce pan over medium heat. Add flour and whisk until combined. Add milk and chicken broth to sauce pan and let simmer for 10-15 minutes.
While the liquid is simmering, separate milkweed buds from the clusters. (they will resemble little peas with stems). I used kitchen shears, but they should be tender enough to remove them with your fingers.
Add milkweed buds, onion, garlic, and celery. Let simmer another 10-15 min.
Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cheddar cheese.
Stir until cheese is melted.
Eat your delicious soup.