Updated: Nov 14, 2019
The past few weeks whenever I'm asked what plant I'm feeling excited about the answer is always milkweed. Milkweed is an incredible wild food! In this blog post I will share how you can harvest milkweed ethically. Then I will share a simple recipe, Milkweed Vinegar.
The Relationship Between a Monarch Butterfly and Milkweed
Stop! Harvesting milkweed? That sure doesn't sound ethical...what about the Monarch butterflies?
This is a common myth among monarch enthusiasts. All it takes to understand is to take time to get to know this beautiful plant. When harvesting in a sustainable method, one need not worry about a negative impact. What concerns me is habitat loss and use of weed killers. Making a place for milkweed on your property is an incredible thing to do for our flying friends.
Milkweed, a Host Plant
Monarchs rely on milkweed. Without it, the larva would not develop into a butterfly. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants. For 3-8 days these eggs are vulnerable to other hungry species. Spiders, ants, wasps and others.
When the eggs hatch, the caterpillar will begin munching the milkweed leaves. For 7-17 days the caterpillar spends it's days eating away...have you ever read "The Hungry Caterpillar?" It's real! During this time the caterpillar is a quite appealing meal. It's lush colours and grubby appearance, who wouldn't want a taste!?
Their predators have to be careful though! Monarchs store toxins from the milkweed plants that can be poisonous. They'll go for a taste but some are quick to spit out. Learning quick not to eat a larva or caterpillar again.
The surviving caterpillars turn into a chrysalis. Using the milkweed leaf or stem. In 8-15 days that chrysalis begins to hatch into the most beautiful butterfly....and the life cycle continues.
Cool fact! The monarch butterfly lives for 2-6 weeks. Monarchs born near the end of summer are the ones to migrate south . These butterflies can live up to 8 months. To then return North, lay their eggs and pass.
One of my teachers once said, "With all the Monarch has to endure, us harvesting these flowers and pods is the least of their concern."
Now, with that being said - she said this to me knowing I understand how to harvest milkweed sustainably. Would I ever walk into a field and harvest all of the flowers? Never! The flowers provide food to many.
Though the same teacher also said, "If you don't work with the plants, they will leave you."
"If you don't work with the plants, they will leave you."
There's a balance here. Don't take too much, plant more, educate people on making space for milkweed..there's ways for you to give back! I'm trusting you.
How Milkweed Grows
Milkweed spreads by underground rhizomes. The roots shoot out new plants. This is why you see milkweed growing in groups.
It's an ideal wild food because it's actually really hard to kill.
I've had great success in germinating milkweed seeds and found the plants easy to grow. It acquired the name "weed" for a reason!
If you're looking to start growing milkweed you could collect some seeds from the pods in the fall, check out online seed suppliers like Richters Herbs or visit your local garden centre. Don't let them fool you with any fancy varieties though! It's a great idea to source a milkweed variety that is native to your area.
Infusing herbs in vinegar is a wonderful way to preserve the summer's bounty and introduce wild foods into your diet. It's an easy and cost efficient way to start making wild food and medicine.
Vinegar is a wonderful way to extract vitamins & minerals from plants.
For my infused vinegars I usually stick to Apple Cider Vinegar but I have seen people infuse Dandelion Roots in Balsamic vinegar to help hide the bitter flavour. Or do delicate plants like violets in a light vinegar. (Champagne or Rice Wine)
What to use it for?
Infused vinegars are fun to make herbal shrubs with, salad dressings, veggie marinades and other yummy creations. A shot of herbal vinegar a day is a great health tonic!
500ml Mason Jar
Wax Paper (Plastic Wrap optional)
Apple Cider Vinegar
1. Harvest the open, milkweed flowers. You will need enough to loosely fill your jar. Remember that you are removing the flowers from the stems so gather more than you think you may need. (You can eat the extras for dinner or freeze into ice cubes)
2. Remove the flowers from their little stems. I use scissors to make this seem less tedious.
3. Fill jar loosely with milkweed flowers.
4. Pour in Apple Cider Vinegar. Filling it to about the top. I always leave half a centimetre of space.
5. Cut a piece of wax paper and/or plastic wrap that will fit over the top of the jar. This is to prevent the metal lid from corroding. Once the barrier is there, screw on the lid.
6. Label and place in dark space for 3-4 weeks.
7. Every few days give your vinegar a shake... maybe sing it song, do a dance, hug it and give it all the best intentions. This is the beauty of working with plants! Tap into your instincts. What feels right?
7. Strain flowers from vinegar.
8. Bottle, label and store in a cool, dark place. Your herbal vinegar will store for well over as year...but I doubt it will last that long!
You can adjust this to small or larger containers! It's fun to do small batches to sample flavours and new combinations.
Do not eat any wild plant unless you are 100% certain with your identification.
It is suggested to cook the unopened milkweed flowers, spring shoots, and young buds in one change of water before consuming.
Did you try it? Let me know in the comments. Or if you have any questions! Happy foraging <3