|Milkweed shoots ready to cook and enjoy|
Milkweed shoots are not for absolute beginner foragers, and milkweed is a good plant to observe for a full year in all of its life stages before trying to consume it. A few people may have a bad reaction to milkweed in their diet as well, so taking it slow at first with tasting is a good idea. Spring shoots of milkweed are the only parts that can really be confused with another inedible and mildly toxic plant--branching dogbane. Both of these plants grow in the same habitat of open fields and roadsides, so some close observation, guidance, and experience is needed to safely forage this springtime edible.
|Dogbane vs. Milkweed closeups of the stalks|
Common milkweed shoots, Asclepias syriaca, have a thick, lightly fuzzy stalk with opposite leaves that are oval shaped and fuzzy as well. They are at a good size for collection before the leaves have uncurled too much, about 5-8 inches tall. All parts of milkweed will ooze a white, milky latex when cut. Branching dogbane shoots, Apocynum cannabinum, are more slender than milkweed shoots, have a slightly red tinge, and are smooth, but also have opposite, oval shaped leaves that are slightly fuzzy. Dogbane also exudes a milky latex when cut. It is very important to look for the fine hairs on the specimen to properly identify milkweed vs. dogbane, we use a small jeweler's loupe, but a magnifying glass works just as well.
|Dogbane vs. Milkweed shoots|
While dogbane has practical uses in making cording, it is not an edible shoot, and contains cardiac glycosides, toxins that affect the heart. It is terribly bitter to taste, a warning sign in any plant that a human or animal may try to consume. Later in its life cycle, dogbane will produce multiple branches from the main stalk, differentiating it from milkweed which does not branch often. The flowers of milkweed and dogbane are also very different, and no confusion between the two plants happens at such a late stage. Dogbane is sometimes planted in flower gardens and is a common weed that is native to North America, so it doesn't need to be removed or eradicated, just properly identified when hunting for milkweed shoots in the spring as food.