Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

2 responses to this post.

  1. I will have to give that a try, because it’s a major weed for me. I have a very healthy patch I work around in the willow garden because I want the monarchs to have food. As a note: they really like REALLY fertile soil, not just wet. Perhaps try feeding them some composted goat manure and rock powders rich in calcium.

    Reply

  2. Posted by wooddogs3 on May 6, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    Interesting. I have an available spot at the foot of a raised bed of pure alfalfa and goat manure, aged over the winter. It might be the perfect spot for these fussy, demanding “weeds.” I will also sprinkle around some gypsum, because our desert soil is full of calcium but it is mostly unavailable to plants because of the alkalinity.
    I am hesitant to say much about the culinary qualities, because I have not tasted them for well over 20 years. But my recollection is that the bud clusters were quite good as a cooked vegetable before they opened or showed any color, and the young seedpods about an inch long were really delicious blanched and buttered.
    Have you read any of Sam Thayer’s foraging books? I think you would find them really interesting.

    Reply

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