Have You Eaten the Feather-shoe?

Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) is one of the most valuable wild plants for those following a rewilding path.  It offers food, medicine, and relatively strong fibers for those that know how to identify and process this plant.  One of its indigenous names is wiphunakson (pronounced weep-hoo-NAHK-sun), which means “feather-shoe” in Passamaquoddy, a very fitting name for this species’ fruit.

Asclepias syriaca is such a valuable wild food because it is available (in some form) for a large portion of the growing season.  The spring shoots emerge in mid-May, and from then until at least mid-August (in my part of the world; western Maine) new foods continue to be produced by this plant, including tender leaves, flower buds, open flowers, immature fruits, and immature seeds.  This time of year (Apsqewi-kisuhs, around August on the Gregorian Calendar), it is the fruits and immature seeds within those fruits that we consume as a food.  Asclepias syriaca is the only milkweed with the fruits (called follicles) covered by slender, soft prickles.

When the green fruits are less than 2.5 cm (one inch) long, you can collect and cook them whole.  Cooking of fruits is like cooking the other parts of the plant.  I generally bring water to a boil and add the parts, keeping them boiling for 6–8 minutes.  If you have read that food from this plant needs to be boiled in changes of water, please disregard those instructions (they are likely based on a misidentification).  Once the fruits get larger, the outer part of the fruit is not as appealing, but the interior is still edible.  While the seeds and their white, silky hairs are still developing, they make a very interesting wild food.  Simply open up the fruit along the suture line and remove the mass of seeds/hairs.  In order to eat these (and enjoy them), you will need to be sure the seed mass is moist (you can sometimes see water when you squeeze it).  Another way to test this food is at the correct stage is to tear the mass in half with your fingers (see accompanying image).  When the seeds are nearing maturity, the hairs attached to the seeds are stronger and I’m unable to tear the entire mass in half with my fingers, indicating this food has passed its prime.  I cook the immature seeds as I would any part of milkweed.  Certainly, if I will be adding them to a pan-fried meal or something similar where cooking will continue, I will shorten the time of boiling to a few minutes.

Asclepias syriaca was a food for the indigenous of this continent.  Though it was the flower buds and flowers that were most often consumed, the young fruits were known to be eaten by the Chippewa and Ojibwa.  Gathering of the fruits is non-lethal collection (the plants are perennial by rhizomes), and only removing some fruits from any plant ensures they can still reproduce.  I highly encourage you to try this food—it is easily chewed, mild-tasting, and has a unique texture once cooked (some authors liken it to stringy cheese).  Please, forage for this plant with your children.  Flowering and fruiting milkweeds are easy to identify (so they won’t be confused) and even their little hands can help you process the young fruits and remove the immature seeds.  Teaching them foraging skills provides them with a degree of self-reliance, helps them understand the value of open spaces, and builds a connection to the other-than-human persons so often forgotten by people of industrial societies.  If you want a young person who does not sit in front of a television screen all day, you must lead the way, making nature fun to them.  Edible plants are one of the great ways to build interest around outdoor activities.