Posts Tagged ‘milkweed’

My Life With Invasives

I’m reading Beyond the War on Invasive Species, an interesting book by Tao Orion that, among other things, recalls some of the horrors that the native plant ecomovement fell into, such as “nuking” large areas repeatedly with Round-Up so that they could eventually be replanted with “pure” native species. The whole issue of how to think about invasives is complicated, and I will not approach it here. But the role of invasives in my own yard is one that I feel able to tackle.  My yard is happily multicultural and can absorb almost any invasive that has a use to me, my livestock, or our local pollinators. Over the years I’ve been surprised by plants that came with warnings about their aggressive nature, but in my yard struggled or even died.

There are lots of invasives here, mostly introduced by me and mostly cherished. To have dandelions, I had to pay good money for seed and then wait impatiently as they took three years to get large and lush and edible. Now they are finally self-seeding a bit and are welcome almost anywhere they appear.

Gojis took a while to settle in but now come up everywhere, which is fine since I like the leaves and young shoots as well as the berries.

Nettles, shown at the top of this post,  are my favorite spring greens, and it has turned out to be very possible to manage them for a fall crop of greens as well. They aren’t found in my high desert area and I had to buy plants to get them. They are probably my favorite invasive.  The first nettle patch was located in an area that has concrete walkway all around it, to foil its dreams of world domination. I have started a couple of other nettle patches this spring in large containers. I’ll report back on how this works out.

Arugula  comes up everywhere, and is welcome almost everywhere it appears. It is one of my favorite salad greens, and makes a fairly good cooked green as well, best with stronger seasonings like garlic and cayenne. The flowers are very attractive to bees  and open at a time when little else is flowering, so I always let plenty of it go to seed.

At this point I would have to classify elephant garlic as an invasive, because no matter how much of it I pull up, I always seem to have even more the following year.  When I threw an arm full on top of straw mulch just to get rid of it, it sent roots down  through the mulch and took off as you see above. I don’t mind it, though. It isn’t much use as a bulb and does not compare to true garlic, but I like the early shoots for green garlic, so it does have a use, and the bees enjoy any flowers that I allow to form.

Speaking of attractive to bees, cardoon has become quite an invasive in my yard but one that, as you see above, has its admirers.  I loved cardoons when I ate them in Italy, and brought back seeds from there to make sure that I got the edible kind and not the florist kind, but I have never been able to eat my homegrown cardoons. No matter how carefully blanched, they are inedibly bitter. They do provide one wonderful vegetable, the peeled top of the bloom scape before the buds swell, but that is one small serving per very large plant. I still let them seed themselves around though, because the bees and my goat adore them and even in my desert climate and alkaline soil, they come up in odd corners and require no care or attention whatsoever. The huge jagged silver leaves are strikingly ornamental.  When they come up in the middle of garden beds, I let them reach a good size and then pull them for the goat. I have read that the large parsnip-like root is edible, but when grown in my yard it is as bitter as the leaves, and is a flavor that only a goat could love.

Scrawny little Phyllostachys dulcis “invading.”

I love bamboo shoots and can seldom  find fresh ones locally, so growing them seemed obvious.  I planted  clumping bamboo and the famously invasive running sweet shoot bamboo.  The latter is famous for overrunning its boundaries and forming 30 foot high jungles, so I sited it in a part of the yard up next to the goat paddock, figuring that I could always turn her loose on it if worst came to worst.  Three years later, each plant now has two or three wimpy looking canes about 5 feet high, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, and I was glad to have it,  but I am still waiting for the abundant shoots that I was told would pop up absolutely everywhere.  The aristocratic clumping bamboos took one look at their pedestrian setting and refused to go on living.

Burdock bloomscape at right stage for peeling and cooking.

Burdock has done a better job of becoming an invasive. I don’t care for the roots that much, and planted it because the peeled bloom scape is a fair vegetable, and I assumed that since I was eating it before the flowers formed, I would be able to keep the plant from reproducing. It fooled me. If you keep cutting off the bloomscape, it forms little short bloomscapes down under the huge leaves where you don’t see them, and seeds itself thickly all around the parent plant.  Dogs wandering through the patch pick up the burrs and plant more elsewhere.  Still, the leaves are a favorite goat treat, and I don’t mind having it around.

Common milkweed is one of my favorite wild edibles, as well as being a great bee plant and the chosen food of the monarch butterfly larva, and for years I have been trying to get it to become invasive, but in my yard it remains as fussy as orchids.  Ordinarily I run a Darwinian garden and will not make great efforts to keep any plant going when its natural inclination is to die, but I have really gone out of my way for the milkweed, and it has not reciprocated. Finally, this year it is beginning to spread a little bit, but there is still not enough to eat any.

Silver nightshade is the only invasive plant in my area that I truly despise and can find no use for, which is a shame because it’s everywhere. If you think it looks pretty, you haven’t gotten to know it. The roots lie several feet underground and are invulnerable. The plant comes up everywhere, and is covered with small prickles that are not only painful but break off in your skin with any touch and cause irritations that last days. The leaves are poisonous to livestock. There is no argument to be made for its existence except that, unfortunately, it does exist.  It does not seem possible to have less of it. I blush to admit that once, many years ago, I was so infuriated by it that I tried spraying some with Round-up, and I must say that it shriveled up over the next several days in a very satisfying way. Unfortunately, within a few weeks it had rebounded and was growing up happily and thickly from the roots, seeming invigorated by the experience.  So do not bother sacrificing your organic credibility, because it won’t work anyway.  Every now and then I run its scientific name through the medical databases, hoping that somebody somewhere will have found a chemical in it that treats a rare cancer or something like that, so that I will feel differently about its general uselessness. But so far, it remains one of nature’s blights. It seems to be highly aggressive in dry soils and doesn’t compete well in damp areas, so maybe as humus and moisture increase in my soil, it will be less of a problem.

Read the book if you are really interested in a different way of thinking about invasives.

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

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:

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.

Books Worth Reading: John Kallas on Edible Wild Plants

The holiday weekend was a great time to read in a warm spot, which reminded me that I should be sharing more of the books that I think are really helpful. I should add that I don’t accept free review copies; whenever I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will. I think that this is essential to an accurate judgment of the value-for-money aspect of the books that I recommend.
With that in mind, John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate is a very good value if you want to get started in foraging. I get a lot of inquiries about wild foods, and this is a book that I can recommend without reservation to any beginner; if you read and pay attention, you will learn to collect a number of common plants safely and prepare them well. Kallas concentrates on leafy greens which are found in most parts of the country, and he organizes them by flavor category in addition to giving accurate botanical and ID information. This is a lot more useful and practical than you might realize if you aren’t accustomed to foraging for greens. A well-balanced dish of greens needs a range of flavor notes, as well as a base of mild greens to build upon, and as you learn the plants from Kallas you will learn the notable aspects of their flavors. In my opinion, nearly any experienced forager could pick up a tip or two here, about preparation if not about identification.
Only greens and shoots are found in this book. If this seems too limited, keep in mind that most of us aren’t going to spend the time needed to forage and prepare wild staples, at least not most of the time. It’s romantic to read about gathering wild rice or arrowroot, or to imagine spending a clear autumn day gathering and storing fruit or nuts, but the wild foods that are widely available throughout much of the country for much of the year and that you can forage in a few minutes on your way home from work are mostly greens and shoots. Besides, if most of us were to make one change in our diets and maintain it, the addition of more green veggies would be a good one to pick. If foraging gets you to eat more leafy greens, this is a good thing.
If, like me, you’re a Kindle addict, this book is available on Kindle. I use the Kindle app on my Ipad so that I can see the photos in color. I daydream about eventually having a large collection of good foraging books on one e-device that I can carry around in my backpack, but unfortunately most of the wild-foods books available for Kindle are not of high quality. This one is.
DR. Kallas’s website can be found here if you’d like to order the book directly from him. You can also read his reviews of foraging books, and his thoughtful comments are invaluable when deciding what books you want to add to your collection.