Maintaining—and harvesting—a patch of common milkweed can help monarch butterflies survive while providing us foraged food as well.
The monarch butterfly—Danaus plexippus, if you prefer its scientific name—is in a very vulnerable place right now. These butterflies have a delicate existence in which their reproduction depends upon the milkweeds. There are 73 distinct species of milkweed (genus Asclepias) in North America and every single one of those species is somehow useful to the monarchs. While adult monarchs can get a meal out of a wide array of flowering plant species, their young cannot. The adults lay their eggs on a number of milkweed species, depending on their location, and the young emerge and feed on these plants.
Over time a remarkable co-evolution has been occurring between these two species. Milkweed in its raw form is generally poisonous to everything that eats it, but monarchs have evolved a mechanism to channel that poison into their bodies to defend themselves against predatory birds. Monarchs could not exist were it not for the milkweeds, and milkweeds might not be the plants that they are today were it not for the monarchs. This, in a nutshell, is co-evolution.
Monarch butterflies undertake a long migratory route from a variety of locations in the southern U.S. and in Mexico to the more northern parts of the continent. Coupling that fact with their lifespan of only 2–5 weeks, we know that the monarch populations that we see in Northern Michigan could be four or five generations removed from the original traveler. It is vital for these migrators to find a hefty supply of milkweed to feed the young of each new generation. The paradox is that by the time they arrive in our area, the most endemic species of milkweed and their preferred food source, the common milkweed, may be too old and tough for the young caterpillars to feed upon.
This is where foragers get to step in and help the cause. Over my years of teaching foraging, I have come to see that occasionally a selfish act has the opposite effect. It’s what I would call a win-win-win—in this case, we benefit by getting to eat a delicious and healthy vegetable; the monarchs benefit with fresh and tender leaves to feed their young; the milkweed benefits because it grows denser when disturbed.
Common milkweed spreads by underground rhizome, which is to say that the portion that you see above ground is not all there is to this story. This rhizome spreads rapidly through the soil creating clonal colonies of milkweed that all originate from the same source. When common milkweed is cut back to the ground, it has the amazing ability to resprout from its rhizome. Which works out wonderfully for the monarchs and us humans as well.
Common milkweed shoots are extremely delicious when properly prepared. I must stress here that this food requires proper preparation to be made edible. The same compounds that make the monarch butterfly unpalatable to birds can make this plant unpalatable to us humans. Fortunately for us, those compounds are easily extracted in boiling water. After boiling and draining, the possibilities are endless—all manner of dishes can be made with milkweed shoots.
It is also imperative that you properly identify the milkweed that you are eating as A. syriaca and not any other milkweed or toxic dogbane. By far my favorite method of teaching people to identify common milkweed is to show them how to identify last year’s dead stalks by their signature opened greyish pods. Another fantastic differentiator is that milkweed has fuzz and dogbane is smooth and shiny. While these two plant species are related, telling them apart is very easy once you learn the basics.
I would encourage you to not be scared to try this wonderful vegetable. There are a variety of local foragers and botany groups that would assist you in learning to properly identify this plant. Once you have learned this, you will have a delicious vegetable to add to the table year after year. And identifying it will be no more difficult than telling the difference between a cucumber and a zucchini. For an absolutely in-depth look at how to identify A. syriaca, I recommend The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer.
Gardening and monarch conservation groups all recommend cutting back your common milkweed to the ground to generate new growth for the migrating monarchs. This new growth is preferable for the caterpillars and thus they have a better chance of survival. This is why foraging can help out a population of butterflies, and in helping out the butterflies can help out an entire ecosystem.
Tending the wild
It is facts like this that keep me motivated to continue foraging. Evidence keeps mounting that our impact on the natural world can be one of great benefit to it. This runs contrary to current ideologies of forest management and ecosystem maintenance. Nature is not a museum. All creatures create a ripple of effects throughout the ecosystem that they occupy. Many things that humans forage are increased by their use, not decreased. This phenomenon is discussed in the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Sam Thayer, a world-renowned forager from Northern Wisconsin has a hefty essay in his latest book Incredible Wild Edibles all about what he has termed “Ecoculture.” Ecoculture is doing what native people all over the world have forever done. It is tending the wild in a way that increases the abundance of plants that humans use, while simultaneously increasing habitat and plant abundance for all the other creatures out there in the wild. This idea runs contrary to our modern farming mentality, and I believe it is about time that we started to challenge our norms in regard to how we interact with nature.
There is a giant beautiful web of interconnectedness spanning the globe that makes the natural world so wonderful to behold. People indigenous to their place have always known the proper ways to interact with their environments. Some of them learned by making mistakes; others learned by interaction and observation. They have known that humans are natural and can be of great benefit when they interact wisely with nature. It would be a shame to see nature suffer from a lack of knowledgeable human involvement.
So this spring when the milkweed shoots start to emerge, go out and gather enough for a meal, and taste a flavor that Native Americans have had in their diet for millennia, knowing that your meal actually helps a population of butterflies that came all the way from Mexico.
Milkweed shoot preparation
Gather about 10–15 shoots to serve 3 or 4 people. Peel off the bigger leaves on either side, leaving the topmost leaves on. Bring a pot of water (about 4 quarts) to a boil, then add the cleaned shoots. Boil for 7–10 minutes. Toss out the water (this step is important—we don’t want to ingest this water) and sauté the boiled and drained shoots in a little salt and butter for a few minutes. Serve with other spring veggies or as a side dish.
*This story comes to us from Edible Grande Traverse. Clay Bowers has been foraging for 14 years. He lives in Traverse City, where he teaches classes on foraging and navigation. Prepared common milkweed shoots photo by Anurag Agrawal.