Tuesday, July 17, 2012

COMMON MILKWEED – Asclepias Syriaca, Perennial Forb/Herb

Common Milkweed (Asclepias Syriaca) has always intrigued me since I became aware of its edibility as a teenager.  It has a very distinct look about it and stands out from other plants as if it is saying "look at me, I am different", and different is good; at least" I taste very good and smell very good". 

Family - Asclepiadaceae (Milkweed Family), Genus - Asclepias (Milkweed)

COMMON MILKWEED, Asclepias Syriaca

I can't remember if the first picture of Milkweed I saw was in my Army Survival Manual back then as a child or if it was in my first pack of edible wild plant survival playing cards, but either way, I can remember the exact location of the first time spotting it.  It was a single plant about two feet tall growing at the edge of my parents front yard.  I still remember the milky white sap that came out as I broke one of the large leafs off the main stem.  However, I didn't eat it until years later and I had never eaten the flowers until  this weekend in Herbal Class with Darryl Patton, the Southern Herbalist near Gadston, Alabama, showing us how it's done.  He took me and the rest of the class by the largest stand of milkweed I have ever seen in my life.  You see, Common Milkweed just isn't as common in the south after all.  It is much more common in the northern U.S.  and that is truly our loss and their gain because it is a very important food plant if found in quantity.

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Milkweed's Fragrant Flowers Attract Monarch Butterflies and Bumblebees

The flowers of this plant are easy to recognize both by looks and their very fragrant smell. To my nose, they smell like Gardenias which is one of my very favorite smelling flowers. Monarch Butterflies and other insects basically live off the flowers.

Common Milkweed is found in dry soils, along roadsides and woodland margins, fields and meadows in the southeastern U.S. but it is much more densely populated (common) in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

It is a perennial plant with upright downy stems and can grow up to 6 feet tall although I've never seen it over a few feet in height. The leaves are opposite, thick and leathery with wavy margins. The plant has a white milky sap or latex that is visible when breaking a piece off and the flowers grow in dense heads that can be dull rose, purple or greenish white. The smell of the flowers is extremely fragrant. The fruits come later on and are clusters of green warty/hairy pods having seeds attached to a feathery like structure.

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Flower Umbels Important Food for Many Insects

The flowers have high glucose content and can be used as a sweetener. The inner bark can be used to make a very strong cordage and fiber. It was used a lot by the Native Americans and its fiber quality has been compared to hemp in studies.

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The Leaves Grow Opposite of Each Other

Common Milkweed is in just about every edible wild plant book that I own but the truth is that there are 175 species in the Milkweed Family in the United States. The troubling part of that statement is that many of these species could potentially be poisonous. That is why it is so very important that you take the time to properly identify this plant as Common Milkweed and let me tell you, it is well worth the little bit of trouble as it's a very valuable food plant and it's not very hard to properly key out its identification. This plant has been wrongly attributed in many books over the years as being bitter until boiled several times. This nasty rumor was started by the foraging author Euell Gibbons in the 60's in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Some think he may have mistakenly eaten either Dogbane or some other Milkweed besides Common Milkweed. That one mistake led other foraging authors to quote the same mistake for many years afterward.

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Easy to Distinquish Leaves

Notice the leaf margin and easy to distinquish leaf veins.

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Preparing the Flower Umbels for Cooking

The fragrance of the flower umbels will absolutely amaze and refresh  your senses.   The smell of these flowers remind me of Gardenia and that's a good thing because Gardenias have one of the best smells.

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Warty/Hairy Green "Pods" Form Later in the Season

The green warty/hairy pods are edible when young, but later are full of seeds connected to a feathery like structure.  The pods later dry and open releasing the seeds that are individually connected to a white fluffy/feathry type material which helps disperse them across larger areas by the wind.

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Adding Flowers to the Egg

In class we cooked the flowers two different ways; in an omelete, some may call a quiche, and also we dipped the flower umbels in batter and then fried them. 

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Easy to Cook - Add Cheese as Desired

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HMMMM..... Time to Eat

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Batter Frying the Flower Umbels

My favorite was the batter fried Milkweed flowers.  Unlike fried Elderberry umbels, you can eat the entire flower umbel, stem and all.

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Yes, It was Very Good

The final product tasted better than it looks in the above picture.

Although most books only mention Common Milkweed as edible, Daniel Moerman discusses a few more species of Milkweed that the early Native Americans utilized in his book "Native American Food Plants". Knowing which of the 175 species of milkweeds are edible is important as there are many of them that are considered poisonous.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) - Range covers most of the U.S. except the west coastal states.  Unspecified "heads" used in deer broth or added to cornmeal mush.  Unspecified food cut and the dried heads stored for use in winter.

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias Verticillata) - Range covers most of the U.S. except the west.  Unspecified leaves and young shoots boiled with meat.

Green Comet Milkweed (Asclepias Viridiflora) - Range covers most of the U.S. except the west.  Unspecified fresh roots used for food; plant also used to spice soups and pieces of root stored for winter soups.

Young leaves and young shoots can be eaten as a vegetable.  Flowers can be eaten as shown here or like preserves after being cut up and stewed.  Immature flower clusters can be cooked and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter and then used in soups.  Properly prepared "young green" pods can be used like okra in soup or boiled as a vegetable.

As you can see, there are many uses for Common Milkweed.  I only wish more of it grew here.  There were other plants that we sampled raw or cooked and ate during class this weekend.  I'll be posting more pictures and writing more blogs over the coming weeks about the other edible wild plants we ate, and also more of my own edible wild plant cook outs using locally found edibles.

If you are interested in learning more about plants, particularly their medicinal qualities and how to properly identifiy them, then I highly recommend that you look into Darryl Patton's Herbal Class which is located in Gadsden, Alabama.  I've had wild plant foraging as a hobby since being a teenager, and I have to admit, until finding Darryl's class, I just haven't found any other people that are that interested in my hobby and that has really suprised me over the years because it is such a fun and very fulfilling hobby.  It just doesn't make sense that as many avid outdoorsman there are, more aren't interested in this particular hobby.  I can remember getting bored or feeling guilty sitting up in a tree waiting on a deer to pop out which didn't have a chance once I got it in my sites, but with edible wild plants you can get adrenaline "hunting" for certain plants and you never know what you will find that tastes good.  It is most certainly a hobby that opens up your food menu to a vast array of diverse tastes which you won't find on the menu elsewhere.  That alone should get some of you more interested.

If you would like to contact "The Southern Herbalist", or find out more information about Darryl's herbal, survival or homesteading classes, look him up at http://thesouthernherbalist.com/ .  Darryl Patton apprenticed under the late Tommy Bass and literally spent thousands of hours studying under him.  He's also a published author and has numerous books and CD's under his belt.  If you'd like to learn more about the great herbalist Tommy Bass, Darryl has a great biography of him at http://thesouthernherbalist.com/tommie-bass-1 .

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