August 12, 2014
The photographs are mine; the information comes from wildfoods.com, which no longer seems to be available online.
Flowers and Fruit
In midsummer the unopened flower buds can be gathered. They look like miniature heads of broccoli but are softer. Dice up a small handful of these and toss them into a soup, casserole, pasta dish, stuffing, or stir-fry to excellent effect. To eat larger servings of the flower buds alone, boil them, drain the water, and season. Many people consider this the best part of the milkweed plant. I think they taste almost identical to the shoots and the pods. There is one small warning that must be made with milkweed flower buds: sometimes they are full of tiny monarch caterpillars.
Usually the first milkweed flowers in northern Wisconsin appear in early July. The blossoming season is over a month long. The multicolored flowers have a sweet, musky odor and are a favorite of insects. I have read that certain Native American tribes boiled and mashed the flowers to form a kind of sweet sauce, but I have not had any success with this. I have eaten the flowers in small quantities raw, and they have a rather pleasant flavor.
As the flowers wither away, seed pods will form in their place along the upper parts of the stem. Even though a cluster contains dozens of flowers, it rarely ends up producing more than four or five seed pods. In a season, an average milkweed stalk produces only four to eight pods. They first appear about the size and shape of a teardrop. When fully grown they will be three to five inches long. Until they are about two-thirds grown the immature pods make a superb vegetable. The smallest pods, under an inch long and still firm, are most desirable. When the pods are fully formed they become tough and unpalatable and should not be eaten.
Milkweed pods are excellent in stew, stir-fry, or eaten as a vegetable side dish. They are delicious with cheese and bread crumbs. The pods can also be made into pickles, but they become soft after boiling.
The best time to gather milkweed pods is late summer (from early August to early September around here). The size of the pods varies greatly from one plant to the next. An immature pod on one specimen may be larger than a full-grown pod on another, so determining which pods are immature can be tricky. The pods that are too old tend to be rougher on the outside than the young pods. They also tend to have more pointed, curved tips. These are tendencies, not rules, however. There are a few more reliable ways to determine the age of pods.
There is a line running the length of each pod, along which it will split open to release its seeds when mature. If you pull apart on both sides of this line and it splits open easily, the pod is probably too old to use. For the beginner, it is best to open up several pods and examine the insides to get an idea of which ones are in the proper stage for harvesting. In an immature milkweed pod (one that can be eaten) all of the seeds will be completely white, without even a hint of browning. The silk should be soft and juicy, not fibrous. It should be easy to pinch through the bundle of silk or to pull it in half. Immature pods are also plumper and harder than mature ones. Don't let this seem more complicated than it really is – with time you will know, at a glance, which pods to collect.
A few times each season I gather a large quantity of milkweed pods. I work my way through my favorite patch and fill a cloth bag, which doesn't take very long, since milkweed often grows in large, prodigious colonies. I leave the tiny pods for next time, and ignore those that are questionably old. When I get home I sort through the pods, keeping all of those less than about 1.5 inches long to be eaten whole. If I do not use these immediately, I can or freeze them (after parboiling). Milkweed pods, after they are picked, begin to toughen in a few hours, and may become unpalatable in a day or less.
The immature pods which are more than 1.5 inches long are used to make a unique food product that is called milkweed white at our house. Milkweed white is simply the silk and soft white seeds from immature pods. I open up each pod, remove the white from the inside, and discard the rind. (The rind is actually edible, but I don't find myself having the appetite to eat all of it that is left over.) When raw, milkweed white is sweet and juicy. (I only eat small amounts of it raw, however.) When boiled, it has a mild, pleasant flavor and a chewy texture. Mixed with other foods, the boiled white looks, tastes, and behaves surprisingly like melted cheese. In fact, most people assume that it is cheese until I tell them otherwise. I often add this boiled silk to rice, pasta, casseroles, and soup, and it has never disappointed me. (It will disappoint you, however, if you expect it to be exactly like cheese.)
The lowly common milkweed provides two different useful kinds of fiber (stalk fiber and silk), plus six different vegetables (shoots, leafy tops, flower buds, flowers, immature pods, and white). It is abundant, easy to recognize, familiar to many of us, and is a perennial that appears in the same place year after year. It's blossoms feed numerous kinds of butterflies, including our most beloved, as well as hummingbirds and honey bees. Pretty amazing, huh?
For a really useful post on milkweed, try this one from Forager's Harvest.
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