When I was a kid, one of the big things we did as a family was go for nature walks. In the woods, in the wetlands or fields, it didn’t matter, so long as we went and explored. Sometimes my parents would drive us quite some distance to check out the local scenery. Sometimes we stayed within minutes of home. As I grew older, I was allowed to roam with other children or on my own.
Me carrying Bud, my friends’ rescued pigeon, through the woods on a walk near the friends’ parents’ cottage. I was about 11 in this photo.
In retrospect, I never went all that far from wherever my parents were, but I reveled in the freedom of exploring on my own. My favourite time to explore was in the fall when the milkweed pods were dried out and bursting. I loved picking the pods and freeing all of the seeds and the silk. Flinging handfuls of silk into the air was akin to blowing on a giant dandelion.
Milkweed flowers; I’m pretty sure the kind commonly found around here is either common milkweed or prairie milkweed.
I’ve only discovered recently that parts of milkweed are also edible. From page 183-184 of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat Ellen Zachos, 2013):
There are a lot of misconceptions about milkweed passed around in books and online. Some people claim it’s bitter; others say it’s downright poisonous. Correctly harvested and prepared, it is neither. […] Here’s what you need to know. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. The shoots, flower buds, and pods of milkweed should be boiled, or blanched and then cooked to completion in a second way. It’s not necessary to boil in three changes of water, as some people believe. However, cooking in water takes away the milky latex (not pleasant to eat), which is why I recommend blanching, even if you choose to cook the milkweed in a different way. […] Also, mature milkweed foliage can indeed be bitter and should be stripped from the young shoots before cooking. If cooked, the large leaves will impart their bitterness and obscure the taste of the milkweed stems, which would be a crying shame.
This book goes on to identify the best practices for collecting and preparing shoots, flower buds, flowers, and young seedpods. There is also a tempting recipe for milkweed flower syrup on page 212.
Immature milkweed seed pods.
Immature milkweed seed pods opened.
Immature milkweed seed pods interior. This pod was over 1.5″ long, so probably too old to eat, but it was still fully white inside.
My copy of The Edible Wild: A complete cookbook and guide to edible wild plants in Canada and North America (Berndt Berglund & Clare E. Bolsby, 1971) also has a section on milkweed starting on page 53:
The young shoots of milkweed may be boiled in the spring. The older stems are too acid and milky for use, but the very young seed pods are excellent when cooked. […] The young seed pods, no larger than a walnut, I usually fry in fat of any kind. If I have a little flour, I mix this into the fat and make a stew of the pods.
Mature milkweed pod, much too old for eating.
The Edible Wild has recipes for:
– milkweed pods soup
– cream of milkweed pods soup
– young milkweed pods, blanched and buttered
– milkweed stalks and wild onions in sour cream
– milkweed stalks with ham and cheese
– steamed and buttered milkweed stalks
– young milkweed stalks braised with wild onions
– glazed milkweed stalks
– stewed milkweed pods with frogs’ legs
– baked milkweed stalks omelet
– steamed milkweed stalks with brandy butter
– milkweed pods and chicken pie
Obviously, the authors have had to have eaten a lot of milkweed to come up with these recipes, which gives me confidence to try it out myself. I am often a little bit wary of foraging plants without an expert in the subject showing me what to do. Perhaps I can find someone local who is willing to teach me, and then I will try out the milkweed pods and chicken pie, which looks delicious. I may skip out on the frogs’ legs, though.
Despite all of the culinary potential of milkweed, I still find this plant at its most appealing when it’s at its least edible. I love it when there are fields so thickly coated with bursts of silk that it looks like the first snow of the season.
Milkweed is such a part of my childhood that I was very surprised when I started talking about it to a relative from the Sudbury area, and they’d never heard of it. While it’s thick on the ground around Ottawa, apparently the conditions aren’t right for it to grow further north. I guess it was silly of me to assume that every Ontarian’s childhood included milkweed. I hope that they at least had cattails! (Parts of which are also edible, by the way.) In the fall, once the plants have started to dry out, a cattail’s flower head explodes wonderfully into a mess of seeds and fluff when rubbed on a hard surface. It’s not quite as satisfying as cracking open milkweed pods, but it’s close.