One of the things I love most about this month is the appearance of Milkweed plants. These miracles of nature contribute so much to our world that they deserve far more respect than we give them. They are the major food source for the Monarch butterfly. Millions of these majestic little creatures migrate every year between the USA and Mexico. However, so many of the milkweed plants have been killed off in recent years that it has seriously diminished the Monarch population.
For this reason, I am very cautious about harvesting milkweed as food. In May, I harvest the shoots, knowing that the plant will reestablish itself, so long as I leave the root intact. Even then, I am careful not to pick too many. The cooked shoots (with the leaves removed) taste a lot like asparagus. The leaves too can be cooked and eaten, much like spinach.
The next parts of the plant that are edible are the flower buds. Each plant has several clusters of flowers, but I’ll rarely remove more than one bunch from a plant, to ensure there’s enough for it to reproduce. The unopened blossoms can be cooked and used in place of peas or capers, or used to decorate dishes. Once opened, the flowers make a nice addition to salads and soups or a garnish.
Once the flowers have gone, they leave behind seed pods, which are crunchy and delicious. However, after a couple of weeks, they become tough and inedible. I only gather pods when there are a lot of them, as this is the most important part to protect. Once they have ripened and the seeds turn brown, the pods split and allow the seeds to escape on the wind. That is a good time to gather them, if you want to start growing your own plants.
The silky parachutes that carry the seeds, provide a very effective tinder for starting a flame, using flint and steel or a bow drill. The stem of the older plants can be stripped of its outer layer, which can be twisted into twine, and used to make the bow. So, from the time it first appears, until the plant dies off, it can be used in a number of ways, not to mention that the sap is very effective for removing warts.
Paul Tappenden is the Rockland Forager. He leads identification walks once a month in our area. See regularly updated blogs, videos, events, and what he and other foragers, herbalists, and naturalists are up to at www.suburbanforagers.com.