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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Foraging and Eating Showy Milkweed

Updated: May 16

Milkweed is one of those edible plants that is a dream for foragers! Edible parts from spring to summer with different shapes, textures, and flavors to experiment with. It also has a mysterious infamy that runs rampant online and in some field guides. In this article, I will cover showy milkweed from the field to the table, starting with identification and ending with some notes about cooking and recipe suggestions!


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A showy milkweed plant in bloom.
The crown-like flowers give this plant the name showy milkweed.

Foraging Sustainably


Milkweeds are native and crucial to many pollinators, including monarch butterflies. When the milkweeds bloom, you can always find bees and other insects enjoying the pretty flowers. However, the monarchs rely on milkweed leaves as a food source for their caterpillars.


So, consider this when you're thinking about foraging milkweed! It's unlikely that foragers could do much damage compared to the vast amount of habitat loss and other factors affecting monarchs, pollinators, milkweed, and other native plants. However, let's try not to add to the pile. If you're foraging shoots, try to only take from very strong populations and only take small percentages of a colony. Milkweed, at least the species we would forage, sprouts from rhizomes and will send more shoots up when some are removed as long as the plant isn't harvested repeatedly. Once the plants have matured, consider only taking the buds, flowers, and seed pods in small numbers. Leave plenty of flowers for the pollinators and pods that will go to seed. Finally, think about giving back by planting some milkweed at your house! You can usually find plants at nurseries or online, and they seem to do pretty well in most full-sun settings. Once they get established, you'll have your very own source of milkweed to forage!


Immature seed pods of showy milkweed.
Young showy milkweed seed pods. The perfect size to forage.

 

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About Showy Milkweed


Milkweed refers to a group of a couple of hundred species in the genus Asclepias. About half of these species can be found in North America, and we have nearly twenty species in Colorado. However, not all milkweeds are edible, and some are even a bit toxic, so in this article, we will be focusing on the edible species that is most common in Colorado. Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa.


The other regularly eaten species, common milkweed, A. syriaca, can occasionally be found in Colorado, but not in any numbers that warrant much attention for this article. For a great coverage of common milkweed, I would highly suggest picking up The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer.


Showy milkweed can be found throughout much of Colorado, except at the highest elevations. It's most common in the lower elevations around urban areas, especially along rivers and streams. It prefers soil that's a little more sandy and likes to grow in areas of full or mostly full sunlight. The first edible portion of showy milkweed, the shoots, start appearing around mid-spring. In my area, northern Colorado, that usually means sometime around the end of May or the beginning of June. These shoots grow fairly quickly and often start putting out their first buds just a few weeks after emerging! The buds last for another few weeks before blooming and eventually turning into the alien-looking seed pods by early to mid-summer.


Milkweed Versus Dogbane


Milkweed is a unique plant and fairly easy to identify because of this! The only challenge comes early in the season when they're just sending up their shoots. At this time, the young plants can easily be confused with shoots of the related but toxic dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum. This confusion is theorized to be one of the main contributors to milkweed's bad rap. In the above-mentioned book, Sam Thayer suggests that the epicenter of this misinformation is likely the well-known book Stalking The Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. In Euell's account of common milkweed, he states it is highly bitter and must be boiled in a few water changes before becoming palatable. Without testing the edibility, other authors continued to share this incorrect information until it became a stain on the history of edible milkweeds. One taste of the plant without a convoluted triple boil process will tell you that Mr. Gibbons mistook dogbane for common milkweed when writing his book. Edible milkweed species are mild, sweet, and lack any hints of bitterness!


To differentiate milkweed from dogbane, look for the following features:

  • Milkweed has a slightly squared stem compared to dogbane's round stem. Like a circle with slightly flattened sides. This can sometimes be hard to see but is fairly consistent.

  • The undersides of young milkweed leaves are slightly fuzzy compared to dogbane's completely smooth leaves.

  • Some people suggest looking for hollow stems when trying to confirm milkweed, but as you can see below, milkweed stems don't become hollow until later, often after the good stage for eating shoots has passed.

  • You can often find some of last year's stalks near the new shoots. Look for the large, spikey-looking milkweed pods instead of the skinny pods of dogbane. This doesn't help when the plants are growing together, but it's good to understand what plants look like in their various growth stages!

  • Once mature, the vast differences in buds, flowers, and seedpods will simplify the identification of milkweed.

A collage of comparison photos for toxic dogbane and edible showy milkweed.
1. Milkweed above, dogbane below. 2. Dogbane stem left, milkweed right. 3. Dogbane leaves. 4. Milkweed leaves.

Aside from dogbane, other possible confusions would come from other species in Asclepias. Showy milkweed is far and away our most common species, but, as mentioned above, we do have a variety of other species here and there. If you're unsure, your best action will be to let it mature to observe its features! This plant might take some time to become comfortable with, especially the shoots! Remember from my last article, Becoming a Better Forager, it's okay if it takes a long time to become confident in an ID. What's important is that you're comfortable with it! To differentiate from other species of milkweed, look to the flowers! Showy milkweed has very distinct, showy flowers. They're a lovely pink color with five sharp, pinched petals in a star-like pattern.


Eating Showy Milkweed


As mentioned in the intro, showy milkweed is one of those plants with many different edible parts! The stalks in mid-spring make a lovely shoot vegetable. Their flavor and texture are similar to asparagus but also have something a little different! The buds and flowers later in the spring and summer are great for different infusions, offering some floral notes and a lovely pink color! Finally, the seed pods, a strange and wonderful vegetable with a flavor like green beans, and the inner seeds do a decent job mimicking cheese when removed from the outer shell! Below, I'll provide a few recipe links and other resources to help get you started on your culinary milkweed adventure!

Showy milkweed shoots, buds, flowers, and seed pods.
Showy milkweed shoots, buds, flowers, and seed pods.

Before the preparation ideas, I want to mention that even though the multiple-rounds-of-boiling myth has been debunked, it is still recommended to blanch milkweed before preparing further. Some people can have a negative GI reaction to milkweed, and blanching helps reduce this. It also helps preserve a nice green color, pulls out some of the milky sap, and ensures a nice tender vegetable once finished with the cooking process! Blanching is a useful technique for all sorts of vegetables, wild and cultivated! If I use them for an infusion, I skip this process with the flowers! I should also note that, as with many wild edibles, milkweed does not agree with some select people regardless of blanching.


Any recipes or ideas for common milkweed will work equally well with showy milkweed! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • As always, Alan Bergo has some great resources for milkweed on his website, here is his article on Common Milkweed Pods, he has several other milkweed articles that can be found at the bottom of this one!

  • Here's a recipe for Milkweed Jelly from Ellen Zachos of Backyard Forager!

  • In the photo below - on the top left- is a plate of blanched pods with some other parts. Bottom left, a shoot vegetable medley including milkweed, asparagus, and salsify buds. Right, A jar of Milkweed Capers (another Alan Bergo recipe). Look at the lovely pink color that the brine becomes!

Cooked milkweed seed pods, shoots, and capers made from the buds.
A few of the many culinary options for showy milkweed.

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest showy milkweed and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


Screenshot of my Foraging Calendar and Wild Food Database

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