I've always thought that milkweed buds were some kind of intergalactic, space-traveling vegetable. Each bud is born on a perky stalk which gives the whole cluster the appearance of a multi-eyed alien just about to wake up. Despite its peculiar looks, it has one of the most down-to-earth, accessible flavors in the wild food world.
To say that its flavor is similar to broccoli would be a disservice, but it does have a comparably mild flavor with an extra hint of sweetness. It's easy to imagine the cooked buds at home on any plate.
When early summer rolls around, I make sure to keep my eyes out for these extraterrestrial organisms.
It would be negligent for me not to address the historical controversy around milkweed. Sam Thayer does a thorough treatment of the Milkweed Controversy in his book, The Forager's Harvest, which I highly recommend reading. The simplest way to explain it is that there are two branches of milkweed-harvesting opponents: Euell Gibbons students and monarch-protectors.
The synopsis of the Euell Gibbons issue is that famed wild foods author, Euell Gibbons, accidentally collected poisonous dogbane stalks thinking they were milkweed stalks. Upon tasting the bitter "milkweed", he declared all milkweed inedible. It's fairly common to encounter fallout from this mistake on the internet, with many sites declaring milkweed inedible and even downright poisonous.
The reality is that milkweed is quite edible and remarkably mild in flavor. If you find bitter milkweed, it's not milkweed. Rest assured that the only stage in which dogbane and milkweed look identical is when the shoots pop up. Sam has an excellent chart in his book showing how to differentiate between the two plants. One of my favorite tips is that the milkweed milk/latex is sweet and copious, whereas the dogbone latex is sparse and bitter.
The other branch of the controversy stems from a desire to protect monarch butterflies. While it's important to note that milkweed is an important habitat for monarch butterflies, the butterflies and their young aren't particularly interested in the flowers. They tend to lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves, which the caterpillars then consume.
If you harvest only one flower bud cluster per plant, there should be plenty of seeds to help the colony reproduce, with little to no impact on the monarch butterfly population. You can also plant your own little milkweed patch to fill your stomach and help the butterflies!
The key to tasty milkweed buds is harvesting them at the right stage. Gather them too early and there's not enough mass to make a good meal. Gather them too late, as they start to flower, and they can be too tough or fragrant. Here are my top tips for harvesting milkweed buds:
With these tips under your belt, you should be on your way to a delicious dish of milkweed buds!
Milkweed buds have a pleasant, mild flavor that makes them one of the most accessible wild vegetables, flavorwise. Although their extraterrestrial look may deter some, most folks find them to be a great gateway food into foraging. Below is a simple way to prepare them. Always remember to harvest sustainably (see tips above).
The Forager's Harvest: a Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, by Samuel Thayer, Forager's Harvest, 2006, pp. 292–299.
“Milkweed for Monarchs.” National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/About/Native-Plants/Milkweed.
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