Wild Edibles: How to Eat Common Milkweed

Disclaimer: Eating certain wild plants can be deadly!!

Be certain to consult a professional (or a really good field guide) in order to positively identify this plant before trying this for yourself. The owners of this site will not be held responsible for any lapses in judgment or stupidity when handling or consuming wild plants.

Milkweed is one of those plants that I have fond memories for. As a young boy I used to love opening the late summer seed pods to feel the silky soft down inside and watch the wind catch it as I would toss one after the other in the air. I’m sure I was the bane of the nearby farmer since a good amount of the seed would land on his fields.

In my late teens and early 20s, when I was big into practicing wilderness survival skills, I would often use the outer fibers on the stalk to make a serviceable cordage (I still enjoy doing this) and I learned to use the seed down but it wasn’t until I was a bit older that I learned how wonderful this plant is as a wild edible.

I always knew it was edible, however I never bothered trying it since all the books I had read on the plant indicated that to render this plant palatable, it required multiple (three or more) boilings in order to remove the toxins and “bitter” taste. Given that there were so many other wild plants I enjoyed eating, I never bothered with this one. This all changed when I read Samuel Thayer’s book called The Forager’s Harvest.

Through his own experiences, Samuel learned that many of the wild-foods books that are out there were just parroting what others were saying, which is that Milkweed is a very bitter plant that requires multiple boilings to get rid of. This appears not to be the case. I was also able to confirm this (by trying milkweed raw) that it is not bitter at all, but is in fact slightly sweet. Given this new perspective, I was excited to learn about how to prepare and eat this plant. Here’s how to do just that:

How to Identify Common Milkweed

The first step before eating any wild edible is to positively identify it. Since Common Milkweed has some poisonous look-alikes (dogbane and butterfly-weed), it’s very important you learn to positively identify this plant before attempting to consume it. Here are some key features to look for in order to positively identify Common Milkweed:

Leaves Opposite: Leaves grow in opposite pairs along the stalk. Generally are 4-9 inches (10-23 cm) long and 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) wide. Oblong or ovate in shape with smooth margins. Thick, meaty leaves — not succulent.
Velvet “fuzz”: The entire plant is covered in a light pubescence giving it a soft, velvety feel (dogbane on the other hand lacks this throughout the plant).
Exudes Latex when Broken: If you break the leaves, petioles, or stalk it will exude a large amount of white, milky latex.
Flavor is Slightly Sweet: If a small tongue-taste reveals that the plant is bitter, it is not Common Milkweed!

How to Eat Common Milkweed

Variety of Foods in Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed is similar to cattail in that there is such a variety of different foods to eat during the various seasons (except winter)t. The parts of the plant that are all delicious are the following:

  • Shoots and new growth stalks
  • Young leaves
  • Flower buds and flowers
  • Immature seed pods and silk

In the following picture you can see most of the above foods except the shoots (found in late spring where I live) and silk (mid to late summer). In the next section I’ll demonstrate how I process these into a delicious and healthy meal.

How to Prepare Common Milkweed

The four ways I like to prepare Common Milkweed is: boiling, frying, and fritters. Here’s some examples from the above milkweed parts that I recently harvested:

Flower Buds and Flowers

There are two ways I like to eat the flowers (3 if you count raw): par-boiling and fritters. For both preparations I’ll par-boil the flowers for about 3 minutes (multiple changes are not necessary):

For half of the bunch, I’ll put a little bit of butter and salt on them and the other half I’ll dip them in a flour and egg batter and fry them to make fritters (they are fantastic with a little bit of honey):

The flower buds and flowers are also excellent in soups.

Young Leaves

The young leaves found on the top portion of the plant can be boiled (only once is required), but I prefer to cook them in a bit of olive oil. They come out crispy and very tasty with an excellent earthy flavor:

Immature Seed Pods

You’ll want to gather the immature seed pods when they are around 1.5 inches or smaller. Here is a picture of some 1/2 inch pods on a plant:

These are excellent boiled or fried. To boil, cook them in boiling water for about 5-7 minutes:

Shoots and New Growth Stalk

Since I gathered these in the Summer, I couldn’t demonstrate the new shoots being prepared. The shoots appear in late spring and are excellent when prepared like Asparagus (cook for around 20 minutes).

If you love the taste of the shoots, you can get a similar taste during the summer by picking off the new growth (be sure to keep the leaves as they are excellent as well) and boiling them for about 10 minutes. Here’s a photo of me pointing that out:

Conclusion

Milkweed is an often ignored wild edible due to the misconceptions that are still out there regarding this plant. This is one that is definitely worth your while to learn to harvest since it is so prolific and provides an amazing food source throughout most of the year.

Here’s a great meal: Boiled flowers with butter and salt, milkweed fritters w/ honey, fried and boiled seed pods and young-leaf stir-fry. Filling and fantastic, Bon Appetit!

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