Most people know milkweed simply as food for the monarch butterfly's caterpillar, or as a tenacious, pesky weed of hayfields. If those butterflies weren't so beautiful, and if their annual migration to Mexico weren't so amazing, few people would care what happened to this herb. But milkweed isn't your average weed.
In World War II, schoolchildren across the Midwest collected thousands of pounds of milkweed fluff to stuff life preservers for the armed forces in the Pacific, because kapok, the normal material used for this purpose, came from Japanese-occupied Indonesia and was unavailable. Today, you can buy pillows, jackets, and comforters stuffed with this material, which is wonderfully soft and has a higher insulative value than goose down, from a company called Ogallala Down, in Ogallala, Nebraska. Some people believe that milkweed will become an important fiber crop, as one of its attributes is that it is perennial and therefore does not need to be replanted every year. Milkweed stalks also produce a coarse, sisal-like fiber that can be used for twine, which varies in strength from one plant to the next. This possibility has been little explored commercially, but it was well known to Native Americans.
The milkweed that we are talking about here is the common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. There are numerous other species of milkweed in North America, but common milkweed is by far the best known. It is abundant in the whole area east of the shortgrass prairies, north of the Deep South, and south of the boreal forests of Canada. It is a common sight of roadsides, fencerows, meadows, sunny woods, and abandoned fields. Common milkweed produces pairs of large, oblong, thick leaves all along its unbranching stem, which is typically three to six feet tall. Both the flowers and the okra-like pods are quite distinctive, as is this herb's growth form. When broken, all parts of the plant produce a white latex, but there are many other plants with this characteristic. Overall, milkweed is a beautiful and very distinctive plant.
I am amazed that, as much attention as milkweed has received as a fiber crop and a butterfly planting, so little has been said about its use as food. Ethnographic records show that common milkweed was eaten as a vegetable by tribes throughout its range. It provides edible shoots (like asparagus), flower bud clusters (like broccoli), and immature pods (like okra). The soft silk inside the immature pods is a unique food, and the flowers are also edible. Milkweed conveniently provides one or more edible parts from late spring until late summer, making it one of the most useful wild greens to learn.
Forager's Harvest 2003
and learn i just did.
i LOVE milkweeds.
they grow happily around the back of the house.
and in the fields.
i love when the caterpillar comes
and stay awhile on the leaves.
and i am always a fan of
watching the monarchs flutter around.
i think i might go gather milkweed fluff
for a pillow!!
you can go see more shadows.
it is going to be a gorgeous fall day
in northern michigan.
definitely a good day to gather fluff.