We are going to preface this article by saying, Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, does contain a mild poison and should only be eaten and used when properly prepared.
Common milkweed is native to many areas of the midwest and it’s not surprising people found uses for it. Native Americans used it for food and for healing. While native and in great supply, it is quite bitter and slightly toxic when raw. This is why Monarch butterflies live, grow and eat milkweed. When eating exclusively milkweed as caterpillars, it makes them bitter and slightly toxic as well. This is how they ward off predators. Who would want to eat something so bitter?
Someone figured out the young sprouts of milkweed can be eaten if properly prepared. The sprouts look like asparagus at the stage you want to harvest them. The more bitter the plant is, the more times it has to go through boiling water but can eventually be eaten. Common milkweed has a mild bitterness and requires only a few boils. You want to make sure though that you boil it enough to cook to break down the toxic chemicals. After boiling, Sautee them in some butter and salt and it’s just like eating asparagus.
When going to harvest some milkweed, make sure you are properly identifying the plant. There is a plant called dogbane that looks similar but is much more bitter. Dogbane is not suitable for humans to eat and has some of the same components as milkweed which is why they are bitter. Dogbane though would be much harder to cook out the bitterness than the milkweed.
Another caution of eating milkweed is, try a little bit before you try a lot. Milkweed doesn’t agree with everyone just like most foods. Try a little to make sure it’s not going to upset your stomach before diving in wholeheartedly.
Once you know you have milkweed, not dogbane and know it agrees, with your stomach, dive on in. There are recipes online you can find and a whole community of forager cooks. It’s pretty cool. We are not experts here but have done research to find these forager cooks and will link them below if you’re interested. Also, don’t worry too much about taking food from monarchs because milkweed shoots and buds will regrow. Just be sure you’re not overindulging and taking more than you need.
Other uses for Milkweed:
Some other cool uses of milkweed include the use of the sap as a topical cream to remove warts. People used to chew on the roots to cure dysentery. The roots and also leaves were used to treat typhus fever and asthma. Infusion of the roots and leaves helped to suppress coughs.
With the medicine we have now, I’m not sure doing these things would be any better than going to your doctor first so we don’t recommend it but it’s interesting to see how native plants were used in a time where the field of medicine wasn’t so advanced.
It’s crazy to think about how people figured out how to use the plants they had around them every day and without advanced science, it must have been some trial and error. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that today and it’s easier to find out how to forage safely and effectively if that’s something you want to do. It’s an interesting practice and helps you learn about the plants in your area but it’s not for everyone and that’s okay. Do what you like but be sure to correctly identify plants if you’re going foraging because not every plant is edible.
Links to more information: