Milkweed for Dinner: Sharing with the Monarchs

Milkweed shoots, flower buds, flowers, and pods are all edible, and are prized vegetables by many foragers. Unfortunately, due to lawns and parking lots and monoculture farm fields, milkweed has become scarce in some places. This can make it difficult for Monarch butterflies to find host plants for their caterpillars. And so, every year between May and August, there are numerous arguments between foragers and non-foragers, and even (especially?) among the foragers themselves, over whether or not it is ethical to harvest and consume the various milkweed parts. The answer? Maybe, if you can find the right circumstances. And that may be easier than you think.

First let’s talk about the plant. Milkweed grows in patches in fields and meadows. Patches can vary in size between a handful of stalks to hundreds, covering half an acre or more. These patches are actually made up of just a few, and often even just one, plant. The individual stalks are connected by underground rhizomes. These rhizomes grow each year and then overwinter and send up new shoots the next year. So every year a patch will grow a little. Interestingly, not all of the shoots in a patch will emerge at once. Milkweed likes to take it’s time and send up a few shoots each day over a period of a couple of weeks. Milkweed also takes it’s time with its flowers and pods. It produces several flower heads over a few weeks, maturing one at a time in succession. So it is not uncommon to see a plant with unopened flowers and opened flowers, or opened flowers and small pods, or even all three at the same time. The pods contain the seeds, with fluffy white tails designed to carry them to a new field to start a new patch.

By understanding the plant, we can take advantage of some of milkweed’s unique features to harvest without interfering with the monarchs. The first way to do that is to find patches where you can be sure no one else is harvesting, because the key is to only harvest each patch once per year. If you do that, you can harvest each part (shoot, flower bud, flower, and pod) without impacting the butterflies. When you pick the shoots, the plant will sense that it has been “grazed” and send up more. If you only do this once a year it will not deplete the plant’s resources. And only one or two flowers buds, flower heads, or pods on each stem will be in prime picking condition on any given day. So if you only pick each of these parts once in each patch you are only taking a small portion of what is being produced. And, again, the plant will sense it has been “browsed” and replace the small amount you took.

Still worried you may be competing with the monarchs? Let’s take it one step further. Find a milkweed patch near the edge of a mowed lawn. Check around your local parks, or make friends with local farmers and check around the edges of their yards. A few days after each mowing, from mid spring through mid summer, you will see milkweed shoots in the lawn. Those are just going to get mowed down, so why not harvest them? And since you have made friends with the local farmers, check out their hay fields. Milkweed often grows in hay fields, especially near the edges, and the hay will be mowed before the milkweed seeds have a chance to mature. This is also true for milkweeds growing along the sides of country roads that get mowed once or twice a year. So you can pick all the flower buds, flowers, and pods you want, and you are not taking anything that wasn’t already destined to be cut down.

By harvesting only once, or harvesting from places where the plants won’t last long enough to produce seed, you can ethically harvest milkweed without hurting the milkweeds or competing with the monarchs. And with just a little extra effort, I call it “paying for your groceries”, you can actually help both the plants and the butterflies. Since the vast majority of milkweed seeds end up in places where they won’t germinate, you can make up for what you have taken by collecting some seed when it is ready and helping it to find a suitable spot to begin a new patch. And while you are harvesting those buds, flowers, and pods in the hay field or ditch that’s going to be mowed, look for monarch caterpillars. You can move any that you find to a safe milkweed patch where they won’t be mowed down and killed.

So, can you ethically harvest milkweed shoots, flower buds, flowers, and pods without competing with the monarchs? Absolutely. You just have know the right places to look.

Want to learn more about foraging in the Great Lakes Area? Read other blog posts and subscribe to the blog here. Or sign up for upcoming camps and classes here. You can also subscribe to Will Forage for Food on YouTube, follow Will_Forage_for_Food on Instagram, and join the Will Forage for Food Facebook Group.