I knew from the tone in my sister’s voice that my mother would be dead before I got there. I changed out of my muddy orchard clothes as fast as I could and threw some overnight things into a bag before running out to the car. The phone rang again before I was halfway down the driveway. I didn’t want to answer. But I answered. “She’s gone, Sam. She’s already gone.” And I responded, just as I had before, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I solemnly walked up the driveway to tell my children, for the third time in three months, that one of their grandparents had died. After a long round of hugs I embarked on the lonely five-hour drive into an uncertain future.
I don’t know why it feels so important to say an untimely goodbye to a body whose life has already departed. But that’s just what I thought I needed, between repeated sessions of crying to Passenger’s Simple Song. And then I got the third call. “You won’t be able to see her. She’s an organ donor. They’re taking her body right now.”
Good call, Mom. Thanks for helping somebody. Suddenly she was a little more alive in my head—not so departed. Suddenly I was a lot more tired. It was approaching midnight. I did not want to donate my organs yet, so I decided it would be wise to get off the highway and sleep. Luckily I knew just the place, not a mile from the interstate exit: Token Creek.
My mother had first brought me to Token Creek in 1986. At the time, she worked in Madison and my father worked in Milwaukee. We lived in a Civil-War era farmhouse beside Lake Sinnissippi, a 50-minute commute for both of them, but in opposite directions. The summer babysitting situation, you could generously say, was a bit sketchy. If I was willing to get up at 5:30 AM, my mother would deliver me from that domestic chaos by driving me to her work and letting me roam Madison for a day. Her office was right next to Tenney Park, where the Yahara River exits Lake Mendota, and I was supposed to stay within the park. This wasn’t too hard for me, since at that time it seemed like the most interesting thing in town. Like much of my childhood, my mother’s proposition was Darwinian: I could have easily been abducted or drowned, but I wasn’t. I swam, fished for bluegills, watched birds, chased ducks, and picked mulberries until Mom got off work. Then we got vanilla soft-serve cones and drove home.
By the middle of July I was bored with Tenney Park, and I begged Mom to drop me off somewhere else. Somewhere bigger. Somewhere wilder. Somewhere with snakes and owls and fewer people. That’s when she found Token Creek.
It wasn’t what I had in mind: a mixture of fields and marshes with a muddy stream flowing through. There were only scattered brush and trees, except for a small lonely grove of bur oaks at the far end of the road. But it was better than Tenney Park. Token Creek was not in the city, and was rather lightly used. It fell far short of the excitement of Devil’s Lake or the Wisconsin River, but through my childhood it came to serve as a sort of consolation prize—if I asked Mom to take me to some coveted fishing or birding spot, and she was disinclined, she’d offer to take me to Token Creek as an alternative. And I’d usually agree, because it was better than staying home.
Token Creek did have a campground. When I was eleven, Mom dropped me and my sisters off there for one summer night—my first camping experience. We all crammed into a cheap K-Mart tent and pretended to sleep for a while before we started fighting. It was a blast.
When I drove past the park gate that warm August night with my window down, the air smelled familiar. I had not been here in over a decade. Two apartment complexes had been built on the cornfields north of the park. The saplings from my childhood had grown into respectable trees, and the campground almost felt wooded. Crickets, katydids, and a great horned owl helped me fall asleep quickly.
The next morning was foggy. At gray dawn I walked barefoot, the dewy grass washing my feet, until I reached the boardwalk extending into the mucky meadow along the creek. I used to walk here sometimes with Mom, because I needed Nature and she needed exercise. I had traveled this path countless times and had come to think of it as the boring boardwalk in the boring park. But I took it anyway, so that I could think about Mom.
The soil is rich along Token Creek. That is an understatement: Moist prairies in this region boast what might be the most fertile soils on the planet. Almost every acre was drained long ago and turned into prime cropland. These few were spared by a looping bend in the creek that made it hard to maneuver a plow, and seeping springs that made it hard to drain. The annual growth here is as lush as you will see anywhere in North America—everything is huge. The giant ragweed towers twelve to fourteen feet, and the sawtooth sunflowers stand nearly as high before they begin to bend elegantly over. Stalks of purple angelica may be two inches thick at the base, the skunk cabbage leaves are monstrous, the jewelweed tangles are almost too thick to walk through, and the nine-foot stinging nettles sway in the wind. I had forgotten all this, and so I had forgotten to take it all for granted. I had even forgotten that Token Creek was boring. In fact, it was astounding, marvelous. I noticed plants that I had overlooked as a child, like Oxypolis rigidior, a muck-lover that looks disturbingly similar to water hemlock but has edible roots. I could now put names to some mysteries from my youth, like the gorgeous purple spires of Liatris pycnostachya.
And then there was the Token Creek plant. I grew up taking it for granted, too. But deep inside I always knew the Token Creek plant was special, for a bunch of reasons. One, it was enormous and beautiful: charismatic megaflora. The leaves were eighteen inches across, like those of mayapple but with pointed lobes, or like a giant Canada anemone. But the Token Creek plant was obviously related to neither; it grew a zigzag stem that rose above my head even as I stood elevated on the boardwalk, with clusters of small, white, five-petaled flowers. I knew this was something special because I wandered a lot of miles, and didn’t see it anywhere else. This plant was so exotic looking that I wondered if it was some ornamental garden escape. Eventually I found more, west of Madison along Black Earth Creek, where I rode my bicycle twice a week; here this plant formed a virtual seven-foot wall of white blossoms in July. I knew it belonged here. But it was always in the background, never the subject, and I didn’t look up what it was.
Sixteen years after I moved away from Token Creek, and three hours distant, I noticed a few of those great palmate leaves in a prairie at the base of a limestone bluff. And finally I asked, “I’ve seen you for so long—but who are you?” Only then did I look closely and ferret out a name: glade mallow, Napaea dioica. It took another decade, and the passing of my mother, for me to bump into glade mallow again, back here where I had first met the plant 33 years ago. There it sat, right beside the boardwalk, just as I remembered it. Except now I saw it for the botanical wonder that it is: a giant mallow singular in its genus, the only strictly dioecious mallow in the western hemisphere, confined to the richest soils of the northern Corn Belt, from Ohio to Minnesota, but with most of the population concentrated in a rough triangle formed by Madison, Chicago, and Bloomington, Illinois.
Glade mallow opened my eyes to the fact that Token Creek was an incredible place, despite the gas stations and restaurants breathing down its neck, despite the noise from the adjacent six-lane freeway and the airport just beyond. What had been my last choice of nature preserves suddenly became the first place I wanted to stop when I drove by Madison, all because of glade mallow.
I read everything I could find about the plant, which wasn’t much, other than a fascinating article from 1963 in one of my favorite periodicals, The American Midland Naturalist, written by Hugh Iltis. A botany professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his heyday Iltis was about as close as you can get to a celebrity botanist. He mentioned that glade mallow was generally uncommon but locally abundant, even weedy along railroad tracks, and remarked that it transplanted quite easily even in summer. He also warned that if its limited habitat was not protected it would soon be extinct.
It is precisely because of the plant’s rarity that I had avoided the obvious question: Can you eat this thing? It’s a mallow, and mallows are generally edible. No wild food books mention glade mallow specifically, but very few of the mallow multitude are mentioned in this literature. And while Huron Smith’s Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki lists four medicinal or topical uses for glade mallow root, no food use in mentioned. This comes as no surprise; the Meskwaki list of food plants was far from complete, and these people were displaced to Iowa from north of the Corn Belt in Wisconsin, and even here they had resided for only a few generations. There is essentially no other ethnobotany written for any Native people within this plant’s distribution—if it were edible, there would probably be no written record of the fact. Since the edible parts would be roots or leaves, there would probably be little archeological evidence of its food use, either. But surely glade mallow would be safe to taste.
A few weeks later I was back at Token Creek making the same nostalgic stroll down the same familiar trails when I saw my chance. A thousand people might have passed this inconspicuous scene without a thought—but to me it was the glaring beacon of a mystery begging to be solved, the proffered key to a long-forgotten treasure, waiting for my fingers alone, as if that distant summer day in the reign of Ronald Reagan when I first trod this path had been fate’s deliberate preparation for this grand moment. The trail had been mowed a couple weeks before. A glade mallow had been cut to the ground. From the root two erect petioles rose, thick as pencils, new and tender, their complex leaves folded upward at the top. I knelt beside the plant and spoke to it softly. “If they don’t think there’s room for you here, I’ll take what you offer me.” I plucked one leaf and chewed it from the base of the petiole. My mouth confirmed what taxonomy had suggested: It was food. I finally got to know the Token Creek plant. Now we are inseparable friends.
I am happy to report that Iltis’ dire prediction has not yet come to pass. Glade mallow still grows along the Sugar River where he took the photos that adorned his article sixty years ago. A few miles northwest it still abounds near Black Earth Creek, and along Scherbel Road near Salmo Pond there is a magnificent colony every bit as thick as it was when I first saw it there thirty years ago. Beside the road runs a power line, and as usual, the right of utility companies to annihilate vegetation for no explicable reason trumps rare plant conservation. Under this line many thousands of glade mallow plants are ruthlessly mowed each summer—in a single pass making more mucilaginous mulch than an avid mallow muncher could masticate in a lifetime. Tenaciously the roots have held their ground for decades despite the onslaught, sending up leaves but never going to bloom.
I did something naughty here, of which I am proud. You might want to try this, too. I brought my cooler. And a shovel. I dug up a bunch of these beleaguered roots from the road shoulder and found them a new home in the “Edible Wet Meadow” section of my property. The leaves withered, but vibrant new ones arose in their place shortly, just as Iltis had said they would. With a heap of grass mulch they are now thriving, holding their own beside the stinging nettle, cow parsnip, angelica, cup plant, and sochan. I will care for them. In May I will eat their giant new leafstalks in soup. I will visit them on humid July mornings at dawn, staring up through thin fog at two kinds of snowy flowers, and I will think about vanilla soft-serve, and I’ll say, “Thanks Mom. Thanks for taking me to Token Creek.”
A lovely patch of glade mallow at Token Creek
When making homemade jams and jellies, commercial powdered pectin is usually the most expensive ingredient. A few generations ago, powdered pectin wasn’t readily available, and the skill of making pectin at home was common knowledge for the family cook — yet today it is a rare individual who knows how to do this. I learned how to extract pectin from apples several years ago when I made jams and jellies for a living and before we had our commercial kitchen (as many as 600 jars per day). Not only does this save money, but more importantly, it provides the satisfaction that only comes with doing things from scratch – one of the reasons that I love using wild foods.
To prepare liquid apple pectin, it is best to use under-ripe apples that are still a bit green, hard, and sour. Ripe apples contain less pectin, but the level varies greatly from one tree to the next; some varieties are suitable when ripe, while some have virtually no pectin by that time. One excellent variety is Dolgo Crabapple or the peels and cores left over from making dehydrated apples slices. Over-ripe apples are the worst. You can use your damaged or misshapen apples for making pectin. Chop them in halves or quarters, fill a large pot, and then add just enough water to almost cover the apple chunks. Cover the pot and place it on low heat for a long time, until the apples are fully cooked and you have something that looks like runny applesauce with skins and seeds in it. Stir the apples every twenty minutes or so while they are cooking.
I arrange a strainer for this “sauce” by placing a cheese cloth (actually a white T-shirt) over the top of a five-gallon pail, secured by a cord tied around the rim. (A piece of cheese cloth in a colander works fine for smaller amounts.) The hot mixture is then poured into the strainer; what drips out the bottom should be a clear to pinkish, thick liquid that’s a little bit slimy to the touch. That’s your liquid apple pectin. I usually let mine strain overnight, because it drips slowly. You can get more pectin by pressing it, but then it comes out a little cloudy and carries more of the under-ripe apple flavor. I like to make a few gallons of this pectin at a time and then save it by canning or freezing – it’s not hard to get a year’s supply with one batch.
To test the strength of the pectin, pour a little bit of rubbing alcohol into a glass and then drop in a spoonful of pectin. The pectin will coagulate into a jelly-like mass. If this mass can be pulled out with a fork and it forms a heaping gob on the tines, it is concentrated enough to jell perfectly. If it can be picked up by the fork, but mostly hangs from it, then it will jell loosely. If it cannot be picked up by the fork in mostly one mass, then the concentration is too weak for it to jell. In this latter case, you just have to boil it down to increase the concentration of the pectin. (Note: the alcohol test doesn’t work right if the pectin is hot.)
You can mix liquid apple pectin with fruit or juice and boil it down until the mixture has enough pectin to jell. This can be a little tricky. If you mix it with a fruit juice such as chokecherry that has little or no natural pectin in it, you will want to boil this mixture down to approximately the same volume as that of the pectin that you put in. If you mix it with high-pectin fruit such as wild grapes, you might only have to boil it down a little. Boiling the fruit-pectin mixture will not harm the flavor unless it cooks to the bottom of the pan, which will not happen if you keep stirring it as it boils. (An overcooked or burnt flavor is generally the result of cooking the jam for too long only after the sugar has been added.) I like to use liquid pectin instead of water to cover fruits such as currants or wild cherries when I boil them to extract the juice. After boiling down a little bit, such juice often has enough pectin to jell. If it is cooled down, the pectin concentration of the juice can be determined using the alcohol test described above. One great thing about apple pectin is that it can be used to dilute or balance the flavors of certain fruits that are not tart enough to make superb jam by themselves, such as elderberry and chokecherry.
When using homemade pectin, you can’t just follow the proportions found on the chart in a Sure-Jell packet; you have to understand something about what makes jelly jell. Basically, there are three factors involved in this: enough acid (some things such as blueberries need lemon juice added), the concentration of sugar, and the concentration of pectin. Too little of either one, and you end up with syrup. It is possible to compensate for a little less sugar with more pectin, or vice-versa – but you can only stray from the recommended ratios a little bit. The most common reason that people have batches that do not jell is because they want to add less sugar than the recipe calls for. If you are going to make jam or jelly, you may as well accept right now that these confections are mostly sugar; that way, hopefully, you will avoid this temptation.
When you estimate that your fruit-pectin mixture is about right, mix in sugar at a ratio of about 5 cups of fruit-pectin (or juice) to 7 cups of sugar. Stir constantly – especially with jam – to keep it from burning to the bottom of the pan. After the jelly comes to a full, rolling boil, let it do so for about a minute. Then, if everything has been done right, it should be ready to pour into jars. If you are not confident, however, this is the stage for the final jelly test. Turn the heat down low when the boiling begins. Dip a large spoon into the mixture and then hold it over the pot sideways. If the last jelly falls off the spoon in a sheet rather than a drop, or if you get a drop that hangs down bulging at the bottom and doesn’t fall (this happens especially with wooden spoons), then you’re in business. If the jelly passes this test in either way, bring it briefly to a vigorous boil on high heat. Here you will find yet another indicator of whether it will jell or not. It will not just boil; it will boil up, get foamy, and probably make you scared that it will boil over. (If you don’t turn the heat off soon enough, it will boil over.) This is when you pour the jam into clean mason jars and cover with clean lids. Turn the jars upside-down for a minute or two to sterilize the lids, right the jars, and try to ignore them for a few hours while they set. (Note that home canning of jam and jelly is not dangerous, and you do not need to sterilize the jars in a boiling-water bath or use a pressure canner!)
Hopefully this doesn’t make the whole process seem harder than it is. Like many skills, once you learn how, it’s a piece of cake. It may be encouraging to know that I never use the alcohol test anymore, and rarely even rely on the last jelly test. After making a number of batches, you can tell just by looking at the jelly if it’s going to jell.
Is it worth all this trouble just to make your jam from scratch? Trouble? There’s no trouble when I do it – just a lot of fun. And that’s what it’s all about.
One of the exciting things about our new blog page is that Sam has several articles he has written over the years that he never got around to publishing. A few years ago, Sam wrote just such an article about a bumper blueberry picking year we had in northern Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
I promise, I will never complain about the weather again. Not that I do that a lot, but this summer I did. It rained and rained and rained, and even though we desperately needed that rain, even though the lakes were five feet lower than normal and we’ve had drought for eight years out of ten, even though the subsoil was exceedingly thirsty, even though the hickories have died out in my county from a drought-induced disease epidemic, I complained about the rain. My driveway washed out in one storm, and I had to spend five hours shoveling mud and gravel to make it passable. Four days later it washed out again, worse. It was bad enough that the rain kept most of my apple blossoms from pollinating—it also drowned one of my trees. And the mosquitoes could suck a man bloodless if he were stuck in the woods for an evening.
But still, it was wrong to complain.
There is an axiom of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a less well known axiom of foraging: seek dry-land plants in wet years and wetland plants in dry years. One of these axioms made for something magical this summer.
Here in the Northwoods there is no more quintessentially dry-land wild edible than the blueberry. Where summers are too cool, or the soil too acidic, for prickly pears, blueberries take their place—growing with many of the same associates. More specifically, the blueberry I am speaking of is Vaccinium angustifolium, called “late low blueberry” or some such silly name in the field guides. To locals they are just blueberries. I call them pine barrens blueberry. They love to grow in sandy places where, in two years out of three, they are nearly dying of thirst by the middle of summer. That’s something of an exaggeration; these guys are used to it. The hot rays of sun on long days, only occasionally filtered through sparse needles of jack pine; the occasional rains percolating swiftly through coarse sand almost devoid of organic matter—this is the chosen world of the low-bush blueberry. It does swell here. Especially when it rains.
This May, June, and July it rained a lot. And last May, something else happened—right in the middle of the biggest pine barrens in the Midwest (and the biggest one in the country outside of the famed New Jersey Pine Barrens), there was the biggest forest fire this region has seen in decades. As I listened to the radio news coverage of this disaster, I could hardly contain my excitement.
I am no arsonist. I don’t rejoice in the suffering of others, and I really do feel bad for the few cabins that were lost. But a fire could not have come to a better place. This is, after all, the pine barrens—a landscape born of fire, shaped in every way by fire, composed of fire-adapted and fire-dependent plants and animals. The area is almost devoid of human habitation, criss-crossed by a partial grid of narrow, scarcely-driven sand roads used primarily by deer and bear hunters and log trucks hauling out crooked pulpwood. The fire jumped several of these roads. It burned up the jack pines and northern pin oak, the hazelnut thickets, the serviceberries, and all of the shrubs and dry grasses between them. Including the blueberries.
The pine barrens have been disappearing for 80 years, as fire control has let them grow slowly into pine-oak forests; in some places, people have sped up the process by putting in plantations. The pine barrens plants and animals are mostly relegated to abandoned farmland, roadsides, and a few tracts in the heart of the barrens so sterile and unproductive that nobody has gotten around to “improving” them. As the scattered trees of this dry savannah meet to form a canopy, casting shade on the sandy earth below, the sun-loving plants of the pine barrens slowly lose vigor and give up their ground to forest plants. The prairie onions die out, along with the leadplant, wood lily, big bluestem, anise hyssop, harebell, prairie smoke, and blazing star. Sweet fern, sand cherry, New Jersey tea, and blueberry—the gang of knee-high shrubs that characterizes pine barrens in the Upper Great Lakes—give way to thickets of American hazel, serviceberry, aspen, black cherry, northern pin oak, and pin cherry. The open-country animals die out, too: prairie skinks, Franklin’s ground squirrel, Plains pocket gopher, sharp-tailed grouse, upland sandpiper. Others, such as smooth green snakes and badgers, just become less common as the barrens grow up.
Finally, after fifty short years some pulp cutter comes and clears the trees, and if he does so soon enough, while a few of the barrens species are hanging on in scattered openings, they will have new life for a decade or so until the next generation of planted pines begins shading them out again. (I know, this is the opposite of what your normal environmentalist would suppose—loggers saving the day and preserving the habitat of native plants and animals. Pine barrens are full of surprises.)
Really, pine barrens are a habitat meant to be in flux; they are meant to grow up and then burn up. Jack pine cones wait patiently, decade after decade, for a fire to open them up and release the seeds. All of the pines need bare soil to germinate, and this is supplied in Nature almost exclusively by fire. We even have a bird, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, specifically adapted to the Great Lakes pine barrens during the brief process of growing up into jack pine forests—it nests in no other habitat. But logging is a poor substitute for fire as a means of periodically re-opening and rejuvenating the barrens.
So the German Road Fire of 2013 was an ecological miracle of a small scale. The pocket gophers can relax now for several generations, merrily digging harebell roots with no worries of relocation. The prairie skinks can gleefully bask away the sunrise atop the sandy plateaus of gopher mounds, knowing that all is right in the world (unless a badger comes by). Wood lilies can sway their ridiculously big heads in summer storms and somehow refrain from snapping their flimsy stems. All because one fine spring day, someone parked a machine with the exhaust system against dry bluestem.
And, oh yeah, 20 square miles of the best blueberry picking I’ve ever seen. The first year after the fire, there are virtually no blueberries—they have to grow back. But in year two, everything is just right. The canopy is gone, so they have all the sun they want. The ashes dissolve in rain, releasing a bonanza of mineral nutrients like these bushes didn’t know this sand could offer. And since they didn’t fruit the year before, their reserves of energy and nutrients are strong, and their hormones tell them to flower like crazy. And the pest levels are low. You only need one more ingredient to get the bumper crop of a lifetime: rain. We got it. And I complained.
Thousands of people came to pick. Some came from hundreds of miles. But it didn’t matter; they hardly left the roads. A few steps from the car put them in blueberry heaven. There are more blueberries than anyone or anything knows what to do with. There are more blueberries here in this burn than all the cultivated blueberries in the state combined—by more than an order of magnitude. In the olden days, this was the role of the passenger pigeon; to wander the land in great flocks looking for bumper crops upon which to gorge. And here we are, Melissa and Sam and two little kids trying to be the passenger pigeons, and coming up way short. We’ve picked 83 gallons in 15 hours over four days. But that doesn’t really tell you how good the picking is: Our best 20 minutes gave us 11 gallons. That’s 180 pounds per hour. And we didn’t put a dent in it. It’s hard not to go back, but we’re about out of freezer space, and need to save some canning jars for other food, and have way more fruit leather than we’ll eat in a year. Plus I’m sick of sorting and cleaning blueberries by now.
I’ve seen blueberries this good once before—in Ontario, in 1996. I’ve picked enough to know this is pretty darn good—even by Maine standards. The bushes are so loaded, many lie directly on the ground. The berries in places are as big as store-bought blueberries—many are the size of a dime. In one cluster I counted 61 berries, all touching each other in a solid mass. (No, it wasn’t 61 berries the size of a dime.) I may never see blueberry picking this good again. Next year will surely be a crop failure.
Last year, the bumper crops were serviceberries, hickory nuts, and cranberries. This year, it’s blueberries, acorns, and nannyberries. So if next year the blueberries are too worn out to give much of a crop, I won’t mind. There will be another miraculous disaster, another counterintuitive blessing to remind me to be grateful. Always. I don’t always have the perception to understand the plan. But I can count on it: Some other fruiting plant will be waiting for the passenger pigeons who won’t arrive.
And I won’t complain about the weather. No matter what it is.
Here is one of our large wild blueberries from 2014.
Hello Foraging Friends,
Summer is progressing nicely here in NW Wisconsin and berry season is right around the corner.
Years ago I started a monthly newsletter about foraging. It was a very enjoyable experience for me and with Melissa's help, we have decided to do something similar via email/blog. This month's article we are featuring Milkweed and hope you enjoy.
Sam Thayer and Melissa Price
Milkweed: A Truly Remarkable Wild Vegetable
Milkweed isn’t your average weed; in fact, I feel guilty calling it a weed at all. The [ leaves) and use this portion like the shoot.
Milkweed flower buds first appear in early summer and can be harvested for about seven weeks. They look like miniature heads of broccoli but have roughly the same flavor as the shoots. These flower buds are wonderful in stir-fry, soup, rice, casseroles, and many other dishes. Just make sure to wash the bugs out.
In late summer milkweed plants produce the familiar pointed, okra-like seedpods which are popular in dried flower arrangements. These range from three to five inches long when mature – but for eating you want the immature pods. Select those that are no more than two thirds of their full size. It takes a little experience to learn the knack of how to tell if the pods are still immature, so as a beginner you might want to stick to using pods less than 1 3⁄4 inches in length to be safe. If the pods are immature the silk and seeds inside will be soft and white without any hint of browning. It is good to occasionally use this test to verify that you are only choosing immature pods. If the pods are mature they will be tough and bitter. Milkweed pods are delicious in stew or just served as a boiled vegetable, perhaps with cheese or mixed with other veggies.
Silk refers to the immature milkweed floss, before it has become fibrous and cottony. This is perhaps the most unique food product that comes from the milkweed plant. When you consume
the pod, you are eating the silk with it. At our house, we eat the smallest pods whole, but we pull the silk out of the larger (but still immature) pods. Open up the pod along the faint line that runs down the side, and the silk wad will pop out easily. If you pinch the silk hard, your thumbnail should go right through it, and you should be able to pull the wad of silk in half. The silk should be juicy; any toughness or dryness is an indicator that the pod is overmature. With time, you will be able to tell at a glance which pods are mature and which are not.
Milkweed silk is both delicious and amazing. It is slightly sweet with no overpowering flavor of any kind. Boil a large handful of these silk wads with a pot of rice or cous cous and the finished product will look like it contains melted mozzarella. The silk holds everything together, so it’s great in casseroles as well. It looks and acts so much like cheese, and tastes similar enough too, that people assume that it is cheese until I tell them otherwise. I have not yet run out of new ways to use milkweed silk in the kitchen – but I keep running out of the silk that I can for the winter!
With all of these uses, it is amazing that milkweed has not become a popular vegetable. The variety of products that it provides ensures a long season of harvest. It is easy to grow (or find) and a small patch can provide a substantial yield. Most importantly, milkweed is delicious. Unlike many foods that were widely eaten by Native Americans, European immigrants did not adopt milkweed into their household economy. We should correct that mistake.
You will find that some books on wild foods recommend boiling milkweed in multiple changes of water to eliminate the “bitterness.” This is not necessary for common milkweed Asclepias syriaca (which is the subject of this article, and the milkweed that most people are familiar with.) Common milkweed is not bitter.
The multiple-boiling recommendation pertains to other species of milkweed, and in my experience, it doesn’t work to eliminate the bitterness. I advise not eating the bitter species at all. Why would you want to, anyway, when the good stuff is so readily available?
Common milkweed contains a small amount of toxins that are soluble in water. (Before you get too worried, remember that tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, almonds, tea, black pepper, hot pepper, mustard, horseradish, cabbage, and many other foods we regularly consume contain small amounts of toxins.) Boiling milkweed parts until tender and then discarding the water, which is the usual preparation, renders them perfectly safe. Milkweed is also safe to eat in modest quantities without draining off the water. Do not eat mature leaves, stems, seeds, or pods.
Finding and Identifying Milkweed
You might laugh at the proposition of looking for milkweed, as this plant is so well known and widespread that many of us would have trouble hiding from it. Common milkweed occurs across the eastern half of the continent, except for the Deep South and the Far North. It grows well up into Canada and west to the middle of the Great Plains.
Milkweed is a perennial herb of old fields, roadsides, small clearings, streamsides, and fencerows. It is most abundant in farm country, where it sometimes forms large colonies covering an acre or more. The plants can be recognized at highway speeds by their distinct form: large, oblong, rather thick leaves in opposite pairs all along the thick, unbranching stem. This robust herb attains a height of four to seven feet where it is not mowed down. The unique clusters of drooping pink, purple, and white flowers, and the seedpods that look like eggs with one end pointed, are hard to forget.
The young shoots of milkweed look a little like those of dogbane, a common plant that is mildly poisonous. Beginners sometimes confuse the two, but they are not prohibitively difficult to tell apart.
Dogbane shoots are much thinner than those of milkweed, which is quite obvious when the plants are seen side-by-side. Milkweed leaves are much bigger. Dogbane stems are usually reddish-purple on the upper part, and become thin before the top leaves, while milkweed stems are green and remain thick even up to the last set of leaves. Milkweed stems have minute fuzz, while those of dogbane lack fuzz and are almost shiny. Dogbane grows much taller than milkweed (often more than a foot) before the leaves fold out and begin to grow, while milkweed leaves usually fold out at about six to eight inches. As the plants mature, dogbane sports many spreading branches, while milkweed does not. Both plants do have milky sap, however, so this cannot be used to identify milkweed while those of dogbane lack fuzz and are almost shiny. Dogbane grows much taller than milkweed (often more than a foot) before the leaves fold out and begin to grow, while milkweed leaves usually fold out at about six to eight inches. As the plants mature, dogbane sports many spreading branches, while milkweed does not. The flowers and form of mature plants are drastically different. Both plants do have milky sap, however, so this cannot be used to identify milkweed.
There are several species of milkweed besides the common milkweed. Most are very small or have pointed, narrow leaves and narrow pods. Keep in mind that this article refers specifically to Asclepias syriaca, the common milkweed, although other plants may be locally called “milkweed.” Of course, it goes without saying that you should never eat a plant unless you are absolutely positive of its identification. If in doubt about milkweed in a particular stage, mark the plants and watch them throughout an entire year so that you know them in every phase of growth. Consult a few good field guides to assure yourself. Once you are thoroughly familiar with the plant, recognizing it will require nothing more than a glance.
Common milkweed’s reputation as a bitter pill is almost certainly the result of people misidentifying dogbane or other, bitter milkweeds. Keep in mind this rule of mouth: If the milkweed is bitter, don’t eat it! Accidentally trying the wrong species might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but as long as you spit it out, it will not hurt you. Never eat bitter milkweed.
Milkweed should be a lesson to us all; it is a foe turned friend, a plant of diverse uses, and one of the most handsome herbs in our landscape. We are still discovering and re-discovering the natural wonders of this marvelous continent. What other treasures have been hiding under our noses for generations?
Thanks from all of us!
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Sam Thayer is an internationally recognized expert on edible wild plants. His first book The Forager’s Harvest has sold over 125,000 copies and his second book Nature’s Garden is not far behind. His passion for wild food extends to studying the origin of cultivated plants and the socio-economic history of the human diet. Other favorite activities include running, bicycling, archery, fishing, cliff diving, swimming, photography, cooking, growing fruit trees, using scythes and other old hand tools, hunting, and anything with the family.