In Chippewa, ini’niwunj meaning “man like”, common milkweed is a monarch of the edible and medicinal wild plant kingdom. Let’s cultivate this king of herbs for the butterflies more than we eat it, please!
Milkweeds folk names are somewhat all over the place, as there are tons of varieties, and many probably don’t refer mainly to A. syriaca. Silkweed is one of the more descriptive names that certainly applies.
Edible Uses of Common Milkweed
Common milkweed is a versatile edible plant. To me, it tastes green pea-like. It’s sweet with no bitterness. Its lack of bitterness is one way you can tell it apart from its lookalike, dogbane. Also, dogbane’s leaves squeak when rubbed together. Around Haliburton, A. Syriaca is our only well represented milkweed.
Young shoots up to around half a foot long can be cooked like asparagus. Newly opened leaves can be eaten like spinach. Unopened flower bunches can be eaten like broccoli. The flowers are also edible.
The pods are edible until they start to get milky (they’ll be entirely white inside with white seeds at their last edible stage). They vaguely take on the consistency of melted cheese and can be used to thicken stews. Milkweed also tenderizes meats.
Back in the day, Euell Gibbons did a write up on milkweed that has been replicated in at least 4 or 5 books I have, claiming it’s bitter and needs to be dumped into boiling water 3, 4 times in preparation. And there are wild plants that do need such preparation. Common milkweed isn’t one of them. The book The Forager’s Harvest really goes into the controversy and myth busts.
I have eaten small milkweed pods raw with no trouble, but milkweed can give a person a tummy ache if not cooked. But do you have to boil it over and over? Nope.
The book, The Edible Wild, has many milkweed recipes, and I plan to go through them and share the best. I may pass on the one with frogs legs, though.
Please be sure to not over harvest this (or any plant), as many creatures depend on it. Better yet, be involved in growing and tending and loving on this plant and all its allies (see Growing below). If a plant resonates with me for edible or other uses, I grow it.
Medicinal Uses of Common Milkweed
Milkweed is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emetic and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
One common usage for the milky secretion is to apply it to the raised part of a wart. But the usage I wish I’d known about much earlier is the possibility it may dissolve gallstones (don’t try this if you’re pregnant!) An equal mix of powdered common milkweed root and marshmallow leaves, taken by the teaspoonful in a cup of boiling water, 3x a day with the last dose just before bed, is said to dissolve gallstones. When I had gallbladder issues the only alternative treatment I found was to drink copious amounts of olive oil in one sitting (and I have heard firsthand that does soften the stones to pass them in mass). I passed on that idea thinking I couldn’t stomach the oil and would be in for a hell night, but now I don’t have a gallbladder. If milkweed has worked for anyone, I’d love to hear in the comments so I can regret it all even more.
Alternative Uses of “Silkweed”
The silky fibers are used for a down stuffing.
The stalks have been used to make rope, twine, and nets.
There is so much online about growing milkweed, because of the movement to save the monarch butterfly. And if you want to use milkweed regularly and/or just help the wild ones, this would be a great train to hop on, so there’s plenty of milkweed to go around. It’s the monarch’s butterfly weed. And unfortunately, some monarch populations are in trouble.
There’s new information about raising monarchs that indicates we may be doing more harm than good if we raise caterpillars. These captive raised butterflies appear to be having navigation difficulties, and issues like spread of disease have come up. It’s also technically illegal to capture and keep wildlife without a permit in Ontario, with few exceptions. But planting milkweed alone makes a positive difference. A friend was recently telling me about her yard being full of monarch chrysalis not long after planting loads of milkweed. No captivity or netting required – she got to watch many develop, emerge and fly for the first time.
Hummingbirds and bees are also crazy about milkweed, as are many other insects. And a few species of bugs depend on it entirely. Tending native milkweed on your property is a wonderful way to support Mother Nature. Once you get it established, it will start to spread by rhizomes.
There’s a second species of Milkweed around Haliburton, Ontario, Canada. That’s swamp milkweed, or in Chippewa, bu’giso’win meaning “swimming”. It’s not as palatable. It’s mostly been used as a purgative root medicine. We will be covering it in 2022! We’ll also be talking about milkweed in December 2021’s Wood Folk Diary, about monarch butterflies.
The milky juice stains.
People can be allergic to the milk, and definitely, do not get it in your eyes!
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants