Despite the white, latex-like sap, from which their name derives, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a delicious wild edible. Found in fields, along roadsides and other open areas, common milkweed is native to almost all of New England. It typically grows 3 to 4 feet tall, on stout straight stems, with thick, broad, opposite leaves and is topped with round, slightly drooping clusters of pinkish-purple flowers. Before the flower buds bloom, they somewhat resemble pinkish-green heads of broccoli. In bloom, each 5-petaled flower is a geometric work of art.
Common milkweed flower buds
Common milkweed flowers in bloom
It’s when the flowers are still in their unopened bud phase that they are at the perfect stage for harvesting. We simply pinched off the flower cluster stems with our hands, and were quickly able to harvest a usable amount from the edges of a nearby abandoned cranberry bog. However, it is worth noting that the milky sap does make a sticky mess. You may want to wear gloves when harvesting common milkweed. Also, as you’re picking, be sure not to include any insect tag-alongs in your harvest. We found a number of monarch butterfly caterpillars, as well as spiders, beetles, and a variety of others.
Cluster of common milkweed plants growing along the edge of an abandoned cranberry bog
Once harvested, common milkweed flower buds should be cooked. No milkweed parts should be eaten raw. They can be blanched, boiled, or sautéed. We sautéed ours in a bit of butter, and seasoned only with salt and pepper. They made a delicious side dish to our dinner, with a taste somewhat similar to peas.
Cooked common milkweed flower buds as a side dish to our dinner
Conservation note: Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) cannot survive without milkweed; monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), and monarch butterflies need milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. Therefore, if you do harvest milkweed buds, try to pick just one flower cluster per plant, perhaps skipping over some plants entirely, to ensure enough remain to mature into flowers, not only as a nectar source for pollinators, but also to produce seeds to facilitate new plant establishment.
Monarch caterpillar on a common milkweed plant
Adult monarch butterfly on milkweed plant