Eating Like a Monarch

Common milkweed, a delicious perennial vegetable

By some odd parenting confluence, our three year old son Beren saw the milkweed flowerbud pickles I was preparing at just about the same moment that Rachel offered him ice cream.

It was a hot recent afternoon and the ice cream was to cool us off and get us out of the 2:00 pm farmer/parent slump.

Beren ignored Rachel's ice cream offer and asked for the milkweed pickles. Yes, milkweed is

that good

. Also, Beren will eat anything if it's harvested from some novel wild plant.

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The edible milkweed in our flora is common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. It blesses abandoned farmfields, less-managed hayfields, roadsides, and other disturbed, well-drained habitats. It is colonial, successful, deer-resistant, plow-tolerant... and thus very abundant.

The other milkweeds in our flora are not edible for people, but are superb pollinator plants and are larval food plants for several invertebrates, including the monarch butterfly.

Milkweed is a superb vegetable: flavorful, tender, abundant. It is used like asparagus (as shoots), broccoli (unopened seedbuds), and okra (unripened seedpods). It may be better than any of the above... and it's perennial, so ground does not need to be freshly disturbed, nor new seedlings started every year, to enjoy it as a vegetable. An ideal permaculture crop then; and a forager's delight as well.

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We're in the flowerbud stage right now, so I'll discuss harvest and uses pertinent to the moment.

Harvest the unopened flowerbuds, which grow in dense clusters. Usually, each stem has a number of flowerbud clusters. Often, the lowest will be in bloom while the uppermost are still in bud. It is quite possible to harvest some of the inflorescences from each plant without denuding any individual ramets. This is a good way to share with monarchs and other pollinators.

As anyone who has seen a cut hayfield with a late bloom of milkweed knows, milkweed is quite capable of regenerating from far more serious trimming, so a modest harvest can be considered to be completely sustainable.

For cooking, I first simmer the buds in salted water for 3-10 minutes. Then (as with most cooked greens), I put them in the skillet with an oil and an allium (butter and garlic works great), and cook until braised, and limp.

Cooked milkweed flowerbuds

Various sources in the foraging literature treat milkweed as either 1. bitter, or 2. potentially toxic. They recommend cooking the hell out of milkweed, multiple changes of water, etc. Following Sam Thayer, who gives milkweed (and this issue) an excellent treatment in Forager's Harvest, I don't feel the need to fear milkweed. But, read around, try it, and decide for yourself. I've never detected bitterness or toxicity in my cooked milkweed, but my experience is limited.

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What about those lacto-fermented milkweed pickles? I've just completed my first batch and they're tangy, salty, tender, and completely delicious.

If you've never lacto-fermented anything before, please read Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz first. Pre-supposing some knowledge (and probably better skills than mine), here are the broad outlines for making milkweed pickles:

1. Cook milkweed buds in boiling water, at least ten minutes.

2. Prepare a brine, one tablespoon salt to one cup boiled water, and mix. This is rather salty, and if you have experience using a less salty brine, or would like to try it, I encourage you to do so.

3. Put cooked milkweed into a mason jar (or other vessel). Garlic, spices, whatever you fancy.

4. Let brine cool, pour over milkweed to very top of jar. Make sure all food is submerged in brine. Use a rock or a plastic bag of brine water if you have to.

5. Put a lid on it, but not capped... you want to let gasses escape, but no air (flies, etc.) going in.

6. Let sit in a shady part of the kitchen for three or four days. Stir if you like. When it tastes good and tangy, put a lid on it and store it in the refrigerator while you eat it.

Very simple, though I daresay others have explained pickling with more depth, interest, and clarity than the above -- please learn from them.

Salty, tangy, delicious - lacto-fermented milkweed pickles

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If we're really serious about eating locally, it seems logical that we look to native plants, adapted to our local soils, wildlife mutualisms, and climate, and wean ourselves from the more resource-demanding of our Old World cultigens.

In some cases, there are excellent native edibles but they are slow-growing or scarce in the wild. Ramps, for example. These can and should be deliberately cultivated to relieve pressure from wild populations.

Milkweed is neither scarce nor slow-growing, but it is part of a wild commons we share with other animals. What if we planted milkweed in perennial beds near, but not in, our vegetable gardens and annual farm rows? We could give freely to monarchs and other pollinators, and take freely for ourselves as well. This is the point where farming dissolves into ecological restoration, and this is where the native plant movement will go: supporting the needs of all animals, human and otherwise, in a new, abundant commons.

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Here in New Jersey, there are twelve milkweed species in our flora, and four of the closely related dogbanes (genus Apocynum). As none besides Asclepias syriaca are edible, it is important to have an understanding of the two genera before foraging. That said, common milkweed, especially in the flowerbud and seedpod stage, is quite distinctive.

Here are photos of some of the other Asclepiasspecies I've met in New Jersey. They're generally very beautiful, often quite fragrant, and are magnets for butterflies and bumblebees. Worth knowing, though the pictures below are just a start; a field guide or two will be needed for positive ID.

Asclepias incarnata - Swamp Milkweed

Asclepias exaltata - Poke Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa - Butterfly Milkweed

Asclepias purpurascens - Purple Milkweed

Asclepias quadrifolia - Four-leaved milkweed

Asclepias viridiflora - Green Milkweed