Colonies of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) often interfere with the orderly plans of farmers and landowners who view it as a nuisance plant, and remove it. Volunteering readily in disturbed ground and fields in states east of the Rockies, the indigenous weed is also one of the best wild foods there is. Every stage is edible, from its spring shoots, to summer buds, flowers, and young seed pods.
Dozens of species of milkweed are indigenous to North America. They are known best to most gardeners for two attributes: their showy flowers and their association with monarch butterflies, whose larvae feed on the leaves.
While some milkweeds are toxic, ethnobotanical records show that many Native Americans used several species for food, as well as for medicine and cordage (rope-making), including Asclepias syriaca, A. speciosa, A. incarnata, A. viridiflora, and A. verticillata. Modern foragers are well-acquainted with the first.
Read on for step-by-step instructions to make Milkweed Buds with Soy and Ginger.
Photography by Marie Viljoen except where noted.
Above: Photograph by Vincent Mounier.
Driving in the Catskills one spring day, my husband stepped on the brakes as I waved wildly at a green field where cows, green grass, and common milkweed shoots shared pastureland. The farmer was nearby and managed to keep a reasonably straight face when I asked him if I could collect the milkweed in his field. “Take it all,” he said. In a borrowed pair of rubber boots I picked a tender bundle and rode home to the city purring in anticipation.
Above: I served the first of these young stalks with a miso-mayonnaise as an appetizer. They can be eaten in any way that you would prepare broccolini, or asparagus, though they taste like neither.
Above: To prepare common milkweed shoots or buds, steam or blanch them in boiling water, then begin improvising.
Above: In early summer, when local cherries are in season, milkweed buds appear, resembling broccolini, superficially. Dress the cooked buds and tender stalks with soy sauce and ginger, oyster sauce and sesame oil, olive oil and lemon juice, or batter and fry them with wedges of lemon on the side. They are memorably delicious.
Above: The cooked young leaves purée easily—their texture is similar to fava beans’. I have added to them to spring tarts (with peas and goats cheese) and to dips.
Above: In midsummer the air around the open flowers hums with scent and bees.
Above: I use the flowers to make a naturally fermented cordial whose aroma always tells of a summer field under a June sky. You can find my recipe for common milkweed cordial at 66 Square Feet (the Food). It mixes beautifully with gin and lime juice. Or infuse the flowers overnight in a simple syrup. With prosecco it is a delicious aperitif, and can be the inspiration for summer popsicles, sorbets, and syllabubs.
Above: In late summer the youngest seedpods are wonderful blanched for a minute in boiling water and then pan-roasted till tender, with a little oil and a strong seasoning, like cumin. They are reminiscent of okra but not as sticky. You can also slit the pods to remove the immature white silk inside, eating only this morsel, briefly cooked—it is soft and very mild.
Above: Common milkweed has a springtime lookalike, which is toxic: dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). The two shoots look so similar (and both bleed latex) that this confusion may have led to the myth promulgated by Euell Gibbons, who popularized American foraging in 1962, in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus ($13.23 on Amazon). His instruction to boil the poor milkweed three times to dispel “the extremely bitter principle” has been repeated by writers and obeyed by foragers countless times. I did it, too, in the beginning. But common milkweed is not bitter, not even when raw. Dogbane is (and other milkweed species may be). Sam Thayer’s seminal book, The Forager’s Harvest ($15.60 on Amazon), contains six pages of enlightening and entertaining reading on this subject.
While there are finer distinctions between the two plants at shoot stage, the most useful and decisive in the field (literally) is simple. Cut a cross section of the stem in question: if the stem is solid, you have dogbane; if the stem is hollow, you have common milkweed.
Above: Once mature, branched and in bloom, dogbane is easy to distinguish from common milkweed.
Above: Because I live in New York City, where common milkweed colonies compete with development, I have begun to grow my own (from Annie’s Annuals, where Asclepias Syriaca ‘Virginia Silk’ is $8.95 for a 4-inch pot). I grow two other species for butterflies (but trust me, foragers are not the cause of the monarchs’ dire plight). Meanwhile a feral milkweed colony around the corner in Brooklyn is about to be flattened by a house renovation and a parking lot was put on top of another, in a popular park.
Above: Common milkweed seeds are increasingly available. When sown, they benefit from cold stratification. In rural Minnesota my friend Frank Meuschke, an artist and a gardener, grows several species of milkweed on a septic drain field that is not mown often, because he likes the insects it attracts. “I call it a Monarch Park,” he says. “Minnesota is part of the great monarch flyway. Given all the chemlawn, corn, and soybean, I think it’s worth providing habitat for these migrants in a state of decline.” His local seeds came from Prairie Moon.
Above: The do’s and don’ts of sustainable foraging apply to common milkweed. Do be respectful. Don’t be a pig. Forage only in healthy populations. Never take it all. My personal rules for common milkweed are as follows: for shoots, cut one in five, once a season. If you are still concerned, skip the shoot stage altogether. In the summer, take one bud cluster from every three or four plants. Take no more than one or two flower umbels per plant (shake flowers well in the field to dislodge hiding insects). In late summer, always leave some pods on a plant for seed dispersal.
Milkweed Buds with Soy and Ginger
- 12 milkweed buds with stems
- 1 tablespoon unscented oil
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into very thin matchsticks
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- ½ teaspoon sugar
Boil enough salted water in a saucepan to cover the milkweed. Blanch the buds and stems for a minute. Drain and refresh under cold water and roll dry in a dishcloth—the buds absorb a lot of water.
In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the ginger and sauté gently for a few minutes until cooked through. Increase the heat and add the soy sauce, lemon juice, and sugar, stirring briskly to dissolve the sugar. Add the blanched milkweed. Cook for a couple of minutes, until just tender. Eat at once.
Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for milkweed with our Milkweed: A Field Guide.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.