Common milkweed has several different edible parts during different seasons. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) grows in open fields and is an important food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is a tall perennial herb that rarely branches, thus helping to differentiate from branching dogbane, a poisonous lookalike. The stem and leaves are covered in fine hairs seen through a magnifier, a second characteristic that can help differentiate from dogbane, which is smooth. The leaves grow in opposite pairs on short stems, and are generally 4-9 inches long ovate shaped. All parts of the plant exude a white, milky sap when broken.
In spring, the shoots can be picked until they are about 14 inches high. At this stage, most of the leaves are not unfurled or fully formed and the stem is tender enough to break off. It is very important to positively identify milkweed shoots from dogbane shoots by looking for the fine hairs on the stem. We boil the shoots for about 15 minutes, making them tender and removing the milky sap. The flavor is similar to green beans.
Later in the spring, the flower clusters will appear at the top of the plant. They look like broccoli florets, but when cooked, taste more like buttered green beans. We have picked them at a tightly clustered stage, and when the flower heads loosen up. Both were delicious when cooked for 7 minutes in boiling water. I used them in a crustless quiche recipe adapted from a recipe from Russ Cohen. I think they would also make a great soup, or addition to a pasta primavera.
The flowers bloom in summer and are sometimes pink, white, purple, or a combination of the colors. They can be boiled or steamed for 3 minutes, then dipped in batter and fried like tempura. The five petals of the flowers bend sharply backwards, and in front of each one there is a lobe pointing forward to form the showy looking part of the flower. Each plant produces several clusters of flowers, but each flower will not form a pod, only 2-5 per flower cluster will mature to a milkweed seed pod.
In late summer, the flowers will die and the pods will appear. They look like green, spiky teardrops and will eventually grow to3-5 inches long. When they are about an inch long, gather the pods and cook them whole. As they grow bigger but before they are fully grown, they can be gathered and the insides can be removed and the pod can be stuffed like a pasta shell. In a milkweed pod that is good for consumption, all of the seeds inside the pod will be completely white. The pods are best cooked and eaten soon after gathering so they do not get tough.
Crustless Milkweed Flower Quiche makes 1-9" x 9" pan, about 9 servings
4 Tbsp flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
salt and pepper
1 C. cottage cheese
2 C. shredded cheddar cheese
4 Tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. cooked milkweed flower buds
1. Heat oven to 350° and grease a 9" x 9" pan.
2. Whip eggs until frothy.
3. Add remaining ingredients and stir. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the eggs are set and the top is browned.