Got Milkweed?

The main character in Ruth Reichl’s 2014 novel Delicious, cooks and eats common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. The fictional Lulu not only survives her culinary venture, but also enjoys it. It’s just another free edible during the World War II-era of food rationing and victory gardens.

And so I began my quest to determine whether milkweed is, in fact, edible. Why would I think Reichl, editor of the late Gourmet, was misleading? Because I’d never heard of milkweed as edible and I know eating the weeds can be dangerous.

I want the answer because I’m a nostalgic, yet progressive, locavore. Looking backward, I want to live off the land like my grandparents did. Looking forward, I want to be first to sample the newest old edibles.

I needed to see if Lulu/Reichl was right. Milkweed, with its umbellate pink flowers followed by silky floss in nubby pods, is found in Ohio waterways and in meadows. Suppose I got lost in the Northeast Ohio wilderness for days. Could I eat it?

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Yes. No. With conditions.

A Google search turned up the usual radically conflicting information. Various bloggers say they ate it and survived with no ill effects. The Roanake Times and The Ohio State University say “potentially toxic.” Brandeis University puts limits on its edible parts. The magazine publisher Rodale is vague, saying, “We don’t have any information.”

So? Unwilling to be a dead guinea pig, I chased empirical evidence.

Charles Tubesing, plant collections curator at Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, says milkweed is edible. Local forager- chefs Ben Bebenroth of the Spice Companies and Jeremy Umansky of the soon-to-open Schmaltz Delicatessen & Bakery agree. And they’ve lived to tell their tales.

Does it taste sour and nasty, as described by 1960s outdoorsman and legendary forager Euell Gibbons? Or is it cheesy, per Lulu/Reichl?

Northeast Ohio has experts in the know.

“It’s a fantastic edible,” says Umansky. “It’s one of the first wild edibles I tried. I’ve eaten a ton of it. I’ve served it to thousands of diners in the Cleveland area.”

Umansky is a seasoned chef who’s spent plenty of time foraging and testing wild edibles. He harvests milkweed’s various useful parts by season, starting with shoots in springtime. As the year goes on, foraging progresses through unopened flower buds, flowers, seed pods, and floss.

He resists comparing the flavors to familiar tastes. “Milkweed shoots don’t compare to anything. They have green vegetal notes and underlying sweetness. They’re pleasant and well-balanced with a wonderful savory note,” Umansky says.

The flower, he says, with its high sugar content have a honey- and yeast-like nectar that lends itself to shortbread cookies or a simple syrup infusion for cocktails, sorbet, and granita. “You can use them raw as a garnish or folded into salads. They pair with grilled and roasted meats,” Umansky says.

“When early fall approaches we use seed pods. You can cook the whole pod,” he says. “They should be blanched for one to two minutes in boiling water, and then shocked in an ice bath. After that, young pods can be halved and seared in butter or grilled. They go well with sautéed mushrooms. The flavor profile is similar to the shoots, but, because seeds are in there, they develop this nutty quality like a boiled peanut.”

Later in the fall, when pods are tough, the silk is still harvestable. As Reichl writes, it can be cooked and folded into rice. “It has nuttiness like you find in some cheeses and has the appearance of something that melts easily,” describes Umansky.

He calls milkweed “a nutritional powerhouse.”

This is where the caution comes in. Umansky and other experts agree that some parts of milkweed contain water-soluble toxins. “The extent of their toxicity in concentration has been debated. Because the toxins are water soluble they degrade in water and heat breaks them down,” he says, suggesting that cooking everything but flowers is good practice.

Another caveat is to be certain to identify common milkweed. Toxins are too high in other milkweed.

That concerns John Cardina, professor and associate chair of the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at OSU. Just because it’s edible, he says, doesn’t mean we should eat it.

“It is true that some weeds, at certain growth stages, when grown in some soils, and prepared in the appropriate way, can be tasty and nutritious. Eating weeds is as American as George Washington telling his troops at Valley Forge to eat lambs quarters,” Cardina says. “However, in modern-day America, my basic stand on eating weeds is this: Don’t do it unless you really know about the plants, the soil they’re growing in, which part of the plant is edible, and how to prepare it.”

“Humans spent thousands of years domesticating plants like lettuce, spinach, and beans so that they would be tasty and safe to eat. Meanwhile, the weedy species spent that time developing poisonous compounds to keep humans and other organisms from eating them,” he continues.

“The weedy types also have a knack for accumulating things like zinc, lead, and other heavy metals that humans should not eat in large quantities. So if you’re hungry for plantbased food, cook up some store-bought spinach, or make a nice salad with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, maybe add some walnuts and apple slices,” Cardina says.

“Many modern varieties of these plants have been selected for human consumption and nutritive value. The weeds have not; they’ve been selected for fast growth and the ability to produce more weeds,” he concludes.

Those are fighting words to Bebenroth, “I think it’s the classic attitude of people who have been indoctrinated into the industrial food complex.”

“There’s so much out there we can eat [that] we’ve forgotten about,” he says. “A majority of this information has been lost and is being rediscovered. We’re eating about 15 different mushrooms and we’re doing a lot of different roots and shoots. We’re harvesting everything we can get our hands on—cattail pollen, pickled shoots.”

When it comes to milkweed, however, he says, “I haven’t seen a lot around, so I’m not inclined to be harvesting it.”

It certainly helps to know what’s edible. What if a zombie apocalypse or financial meltdown happens? Like Lulu, this survivalist knows that milkweed can add variety and health benefits to her diet.