Most of us grew up with the knowledge that Common Milkweed is poisonous. We were taught that one of the only creatures that can eat Milkweed is the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar. By eating the leaves, the Monarch ingest the poison becoming toxic itself. This self-defence mechanism makes the grubby bugger unappetizing to predators making its demise less likely.
The knowledge that we grew up with was dead on accurate…but…it was only part of the story. There is a lot more to Milkweed than being a nursery for butterflies. Milkweed might be one of the most useful plants we have.
First let’s get past the poison white sap. Though it is true that the sap is not for human consumption, that doesn’t mean the whole plant can’t be turned into fine dining. There are actually 3 stages that the milkweed goes through where we can make use of its nutrition.
First- When the young shoots first appear in Spring: Make sure it is Common Milkweed (other varieties are less palatable and not recommended) and not Dogbane for instance. Always know 100% what you have and that you know how to use it. The young shoots can be harvested before they leaf out. Use them like you would asparagus. (see note below)
Second- The flower heads, when budded or opened, make an amazing broccoli substitute. The taste is similar, but the Milkweed has a bit of a floral taste. Very good!
Note: Here is the deal with preparing Milkweed shoots and flowers. Many poisons in plants have compounds that are soluble in alcohol or oils. Others have compounds that are soluble in water. When the compounds dissolve, they leach from the plant tissue and create a solution containing the poison compound. Some plants of course have various poisonous compounds in which some are alcohol based and others are water based. Those plants would have to be processed in water and then an alcohol to leach all of their poisons.
There are also some plants, such as Poison Hemlock, that are so toxic, that there is no rendering them edible. That is not the case with Milkweed which contains several glucosidic substances called cardenolides. Common milkweed is slightly toxic to humans, but only if eaten in large amounts, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University. If you eat large amounts of improperly prepared milkweed of any species, you may experience bloating, fever, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils and muscle spasms, and the result can be fatal.
The key there is “large amounts of improperly prepared Milkweed”. Meaning you can consume a pretty large amount (way more than you could eat without being gluttonous) so long as you cook it properly. Cooking it properly is easy. The toxins in Milkweed are water-soluble. Simply boil the shoots or flower heads in clean water for a minute or so. You will notice that the water turns very dark green. Drain that water and dispose. Boil the Milkweed again for a minute. The water will still be green, but not as dark. Again, strain and discard the water. Boil a third time and drain. Again, discard the water. This time, the water should have a tint of green but that’s about it. Add some butter, salt, pepper and I like a dash of vinegar…Yum.
It sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. Use two pots. Put the Milkweed in one and cover with water. Turn stove on high. While that is heating and cooking, get another pot on with enough water to cover as well. When the Milkweed has boiled a minute or so, strain and dump into already boiling second pot. Meanwhile, refill the first pot with hot water and have it ready for the third boil. I like having a tea kettle on with water that boiled so it’s ready for the third boil. Really, the whole process is 10 minutes or less.
Now, the Third: The young pods. I know that kids love to have pod fights. I did growing up and even though it’s a waste of a great resource, every kid should get beamed in the noggin at least once by a Milkweed pod. It’s a part of growing up. But, there is a better use for the young pods…eat the contents. When 2″ long and less, the contents of the Milkweed pod can be quite delicious. Make sure the “feathers are tightly packed and not starting to fluff out. They should also be snow-white from top to bottom. If they start turning brown, they are too old.
I have eaten the real small ones raw. They are sorta bland, but otherwise pleasant. But they shine when soaked in a little milk, rolled in your favorite fish coating and deep-fried. They remind me of deep-fried mozzarella sticks. Oh yeah, that good.
I’m not finished. I am with eating the plant, but there are other uses. Here is a list of traditional medicinal uses from http://medicinalherbinfo.org :
Milkweed is useful for kidney problems, dropsy, scrofula, conditions of the bladder, water retention, asthma, stomach ailments, and gallstones, female disorders, arthritis, bronchitis. Causes increase in perspiration, thus reducing fever. Some Native Americans rubbed the (latex) juice on warts, moles, ringworms; others drank an infusion of the rootstock to produce temporary sterility or as a laxative. A folk cancer remedy.
Make sure you completely study medicinal uses before attempting them. It’s also a good idea to talk with a herbalist about how to use Milkweed.
Bet you think that’s it for this amazing plant. You would be wrong! The fibers were a favorite of Native Americans for making rope and netting.
The tall stems lose the milky latex as they dry out. You can strip the outer layer off in long strips and twist the fibers into strong cordage.
The Milkweed strips from the stem easily, It also rolls very easily making for pretty quick results. It is one of my favorite fibers to work with.
Another use is that the sap can be used as a simple glue. Much like Elmer, the sap dries fairly quickly. It isn’t going to make a strong bond, but it can help to lay down cordage fibers, or seal papers and plastics together.
Now to wrap it up. Milkweed has saved American lives! During WWII, children were encouraged to pick the maturing fluffy feather from the pods. That fluff is much more buoyant than cork. The Navy was running out of the stuffing they used in life preservers and depended on the Milkweed fibers to keep their sailors afloat. Not bad for a poisonous plant.
The next time you are out and about, have another look at the Milkweed plant. There is much more to it than saving the life of caterpillar. Do yourself one more favor. When the Milkweed flower is in full bloom, take a close look at the flower itself. God had one more surprise for you. It is a fabulously complex structure that only He could have designed.
http://homeguides.sfgate.com/poisonous-milkweed-humans. All photos are the property of Nature’s Access and Jeffrey Yenior