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Post by Sonshine on Sat Jun 20, 2009 12:56 am

A truly remarkable wild vegetable

By Sam Thayer
Director of the Wild Food Institute
Bruce, Wisconsin

Milkweed isn't your average weed; in fact, I feel guilty calling it a weed
at all. The common milkweed, Asclepias syriacqa, is one of the best known
wild plants in North America. Children love to play with the downy fluff in
autumn, while farmers despise it as a tenacious weed of hayfields and
pastures. Butterfly enthusiasts adore milkweed as the sustenance for their
beloved monarch. Hardly any country dweller can fail to notice this unique,
elegant plant so laden with fragrant, multi-colored blossoms in midsummer.
Milkweed has served humans in many ways. During World War II, American
schoolchildren collected milkweed floss to fill life preservers for the
armed forces. This same floss is being used today by a Nebraska company
called Ogallalla Down to stuff jackets, comforters, and pillows-and some
people believe that it will become an important fiber crop in the future. It
has an insulating effect surpassing that of goose down. Native Americans
employed the tough stalk fibers for making string and rope.
Not least among the uses of common milkweed, however, is its versatility as
a vegetable. Milkweed produces four different edible products, and all of
them are delicious. It was a regular food item for all Native American
tribes within its broad range.

Milkweed in flower

Gathering and cooking milkweed
There is a beautiful patch of milkweed in an old hayfield near my house. I
treat it as an outpost of my garden-one I never have to tend. Because
milkweed is perennial, it appears every season in this same locality.
The milkweed season begins in late spring (just about the time that leaves
are coming out on the oak trees) when the shoots come up near the dead
stalks of last year's plants. These resemble asparagus spears, but have tiny
leaves, in opposing pairs, pressed up flat against the stem. Until they are
about eight inches tall, milkweed shoots make a delicious boiled vegetable.
Their texture and flavor suggest a cross between green beans and asparagus,
but it is distinct from either. As the plant grows taller, the bottom of the
shoot becomes tough. Until it attains a height of about two feet, however,
you can break off the top few inches (remove any large leaves) and use this
portion like the shoot.
Milkweed flower buds first appear in early summer and can be harvested for
about seven weeks. They look like immature heads of broccoli but have
roughly the same flavor as the shoots. These flower buds are wonderful in
stir-fry, soup, rice casseroles, and many other dishes. Just make sure to
wash the bugs out.
In late summer milkweed plants produce the familiar pointed, okra-like
seedpods which are popular in dried flower arrangements. These range from
three to five inches long when mature, but for eating you want the immature
pods. Select those that are no more than two-thirds of their full size. It
takes a little experience to learn the knack of how to tell if the pods are
still immature, so as a beginner you might want to stick to using pods less
than 1-3/4 inches in length to be safe. If the pods are immature the silk
and seeds inside will be soft and white without any hint of browning. It is
good to occasionally use this test to verify that you are only choosing
immature pods. If the pods are mature they will be extremely tough. Milkweed
pods are delicious in stew or just served as a boiled vegetable, perhaps
with cheese or mixed with other veggies.
"Silk" refers to the immature milkweed floss, before it has become fibrous
and cottony. This is perhaps the most unique food product that comes from
the milkweed plant. When you consume the pod, you are eating the silk with
it. At our house, we eat the smallest pods whole, but we pull the silk out
of the larger (but still immature) pods. Open up the pod along the faint
line that runs down the side, and the silk wad will pop out easily. If you
pinch the silk hard, your thumbnail should go right through it, and you
should be able to pull the wad of silk in half. The silk should be juicy;
any toughness or dryness is an indicator that the pod is mature. With time,
you will be able to tell at a glance which pods are mature and which are
Milkweed silk is both delicious and amazing. It is slightly sweet with no
overpowering flavor of any kind. Boil a large handful of these silk wads
with a pot of rice or cous cous and the finished product will look like it
contains melted mozzarella. The silk holds everything together, so it's
great in casseroles as well. It looks and acts so much like cheese, and
tastes similar enough too, that people assume it IS cheese until I tell them
otherwise. I have not yet run out of new ways to use milkweed silk in the
kitchen-but I keep running out of the silk that I can for the winter!

Milkweed Pods in Immature Stage

With all of these uses, it is amazing that milkweed has not become a popu
lar vegetable. The variety of products that it provides ensures a long
season of harvest. It is easy to grow (or find) and a small patch can
provide a substantial yield. Most importantly, milkweed is delicious. Unlike
many foods that were widely eaten by Native Americans, European immigrants
did not adopt milkweed into their household economy. We should correct that
You will find that some books on wild foods recommend boiling milkweed in
multiple changes of water to eliminate the "bitterness." This is not
necessary for common milkweed Asclepias syriaca (which is the subject of
this article, and the milkweed that most people are familiar with). Common
milkweed is not bitter.
The multiple-boiling recommendation pertains to other species of milkweed,
and in my experience, it doesn't work to eliminate the bitterness anyway. I
advise not eating the bitter species at all.
Common milkweed contains a small amount of toxins that are soluble in water.
(Before you get too worried, remember that tomatoes, potatoes, ground
cherries, almonds, tea, black pepper, hot pepper, mustard, horseradish,
cabbage and many other foods we regularly consume contain small amounts of
toxins.) Boiling milkweed parts until tender and then discarding the water,
which is the usual preparation, renders them perfectly safe. Milkweed is
also safe to eat in modest quantities without draining off the water. Do not
eat mature leaves, stems, seeds or pods.
Finding and identifying milkweed
You might laugh at the proposition of looking for milkweed, as this plant is
so well known and widespread that many of us would have trouble hiding from
it. Common milkweed occurs across the eastern half of the continent, except
for the Deep South and the Far North. It grows well up into Canada and west
to the middle of the Great Plains.
Milkweed is a perennial herb of old fields, roadsides, small clearings,
streamsides and fencerows. It is most abundant in farm country, where it
sometimes forms large colonies covering an acre or more. The plants can be
recognized at highway speeds by their distinct form: large, oblong, rather
thick leaves in opposite pairs all along the thick, unbranching stem. This
robust herb attains a height of four to seven feet where it is not mowed
down. The unique clusters of drooping pink, purple and white flower, and the
seedpods that look like eggs with one end pointed, are hard to forget.
The young shoots of milkweed look a little like dogbane, a common plant that
is mildly poisonous. Beginners sometimes confuse the two, but they are not
prohibitively difficult to tell apart.

Milkweed (above) / Dogbane stem comparison

Dogbane shoots are much thinner than those of milkweed (see photo on page
47), which is quite obvious when the plants are seen side-by-side. Milkweed
leaves are much bigger. Dogbane stems are usually reddish-purple on the
upper part, and become thin before the top leaves, while milkweed stems are
green and remain thick even up to the last set of leaves. Milkweed stems
have minute fuzz, while those of dogbane lack fuzz and are almost shiny.
Dogbane grows much taller than milkweed (often more than a foot) before the
leaves fold out and begin to grow, while milkweed leaves usually fold out at
about six to eight inches. As the plants mature, dogbane sports many
spreading branches, while milkweed does not. Both plants do have milky sap,
however, so this cannot be used to identify milkweed.
There are several species of milkweed besides the common milkweed. Most are
very small or have pointed, narrow leaves and narrow pods. Of course, it
goes without saying that you should never eat a plant unless you are
absolutely positive of its identification. If in doubt about milkweed in a
particular stage, mark the plants and watch them throughout an entire year
so that you know them in every phase of growth. Consult a few good field
guides to assure yourself. Once you are thoroughly familiar with the plant,
recognizing it will require nothing more than a glance.
Common milkweed's reputation as a bitter pill is almost certainly the result
of people mistakenly trying dogbane or other, bitter milkweeds. Keep in mind
this rule of mouth: If the milkweed is bitter, don't eat it! Accidentally
trying the wrong species might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but as long
as you spit it out, it will not hurt you. Never eat bitter milkweed.
Milkweed should be a lesson to us all; it is a foe turned friend, a plant of
diverse uses and one of the most handsome herbs in our landscape. We are
still discovering and re-discovering the natural wonders of this marvelous
continent. What other treasures have been hiding under our noses for
Sam is the editor of The Forager: Newsletter of the Wild Food Institute. For
a copy send $3 to: WFI, PO Box 156, Port Wing, WI 54865.

He who cultivates his land will have plenty of food,
but from idle pursuits a man has his fill of poverty
Proverbs 28:19[b]

Posts : 5253
Join date : 2009-05-07
Age : 62

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