Foraging and Eating Showy Milkweed
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
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 on the internet and in some field guides, but more on that later! In this article I'm going to cover milkweed from the field to the table, starting with identification and ending with some notes about cooking and recipe suggestions!
Like the previous few articles, this topic was also chosen by the wonderful folks who support me on Patreon. These Patron-chosen articles have taken up all the writing that I've had time for recently, but I do have several ideas for other articles for when I have a little more free time! One of those, an article about edible trees, was tied with milkweed for this article spot but eventually lost by a vote or two. I'm going to write it anyways because it's an interesting and exciting topic! Finally, as a preview of what's next, this month my Patrons are choosing between four different mushroom species and Lobster mushrooms are currently winning. Now, on to the milkweed!
Before diving into the details of milkweed I want to mention a couple important things about sustainability. Milkweeds are native and crucial to many pollinators including and most importantly monarch butterflies. When the milkweeds are in bloom you can always find bees and other insects enjoying the pretty flowers - find the bee in the above photo! However, the monarchs solely rely on milkweed 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 when compared to the vast amount of habitat loss and other factors effecting monarchs, pollinators, milkweed, and other native plants, but let's try not to add onto 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 flowers for the pollinators and lots of pods to 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!
The name 'milkweed' refers to a group of a couple hundred species in the genus Asclepias. About half of these species can be found in North America, and in Colorado we have close to twenty different species! 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 to Colorado, showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. From here, whenever I use 'milkweed' I'm referring to showy milkweed unless stated otherwise. I have heard that the other regularly eaten species, common milkweed, A. syriaca, can occasionally be found here as well, but not in any numbers that would 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 excepting the highest elevations. It's most common in the lower elevations around urban areas, especially along rivers and streams, though not exclusively. It seems to prefer soil that's a little more sandy, and likes to grow in areas of full or mostly full sunlight. The first edible portion of milkweed, the shoots, start appearing around mid-spring. In my area, northern Colorado, that usually means sometime around the end of May or beginning of June. These shoots grow fairly quickly and will 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 is a pretty unique plant and is fairly easy to positively identify because of its uniqueness! 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 that it is highly bitter and must be boiled in a few changes of water before becoming palatable. Other authors, without testing the edibility, continued to share this incorrect information until it became a stain on the history of edible milkweeds. One taste of the plant - common and showy alike - without a convoluted triple boil process will tell you that Mr. Gibbons obviously mistook dogbane for common milkweed when writing his book. Both milkweed plants are mild, sweet, and lack any hints of bitterness! He did apparently figure out how to make the toxic dogbane edible though...
Don't make the same mistake as Euell! 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's stem doesn't become hollow until later, often after the good stage for eating shoots has passed.
You can usually also find some of last year's stalks near the new shoots. Look for the large spikey-looking pods of milkweed 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 all of their growth stages!
Once mature, the vast differences in buds, flowers, and seedpods will make proper identification of milkweed simple.
Aside from dogbane, the only 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 course of action will be to let it mature to observe all of its features! This is a plant that might take you some time to become comfortable with, especially the shoots! Remember from my last article, Becoming a Better Forager, it's okay if it takes you 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 and... well, showy flowers. They're a lovely pink color and have five sharp, pinched petals in a star-like pattern.
As mentioned in the intro, milkweed is one of those plants with a bunch of different edible parts! The stalks in mid-spring make a lovely shoot vegetable, their flavor and texture is similar to asparagus but has something a little different as well! The buds and flowers later in the spring and summer are great for different infusions where they offer some floral notes and a lovely pink color! Finally, the seed pods, a strange and wonderful vegetable with a flavor sort of like green beans, and inner seeds that do a decent job of 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!
Before the preparation ideas, I want to mention that even though the boiling myth has been debunked I still typically give my milkweed a quick blanch before cooking further. It helps preserve a nice green color, pulls out some of the milky sap, and helps ensure a nice tender vegetable once finished with the cooking process! Blanching is a useful for techniques for all sorts of vegetables, wild and cultivated! Most of the foragers that I know also do either a blanch or quick boil in the same fashion. I skip this process with the buds and flowers if I'm using them for an infusion! I should also note that, as with many wild edibles, milkweed does not agree with some select people. But, as long as you're sure you have milkweed and you know you aren't sensitive to it, there's no need to go through the fabled triple-boil process!
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 below photo - top left, a plate of blanched pods with some other parts as well. 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!