Sunday, March 11, 2012

Milkweed and the Dance of Life

Just outside our front door is a small patch of Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, that Tanya grew from seed a few years ago. In late spring when the large clusters of pink flowers are in bloom, the air comes alive with their sweet perfume. That scent, or perhaps the flowers’ shapes and color, must serve as a signal to a whole host of insect species, because no other plants on our property rival the milkweeds for the sheer number and variety of insects that buzz, hum, and hover around them when they are in bloom.

For several weeks, the flowers are host to an ecstatic dance of insect life. Bumblebees, beetles, moths, spiders, flies, and wasps all make an appearance to suck the flowers’ sweet nectar. The showiest and most easily identified of the insects is the monarch butterfly, with its large orange wings bordered in black. I’m not much of an entomologist, and I don’t know the names of most of the insects that feed on the milkweed flowers, but the monarch is one of those charismatic species that stands out and is instantly recognizable. The milkweeds are the only host plant for the larva of the monarch; the continent-wide decline in monarch numbers is due in large measure to a loss of milkweed habitat. The causes are the familiar ones: native ecologies bulldozed and plowed under to make way for agriculture, industry, urbs and suburbs.

Each of the last two years Clementine and Guthrie decided to “raise” a monarch butterfly. They found a couple of caterpillars on the plants and we put them in a small fish tank with some of the stalks and leaves of the milkweed for food. Within days the caterpillars had suspended themselves from the piece of window screen that served as the lid, and wrapped themselves in the chrysalis that would be their home for about ten days until their transformation to butterflies. When that metamorphosis is just about complete, the chrysalis turns clear, and in less than a day a young monarch emerges, its wings tiny and unfurled at first, but growing to full size literally before your eyes. The whole process takes just a couple of hours. The monarchs usually stay in our garden, close to the milkweed, for a day or two before beginning their lifelong journey south, toward the forests of Mexico.

We feel a close kinship to the monarch, and to all the other insects that feed on the milkweed. Not only because they represent the diversity that we are working to restore to our land, but because, like them, we too take our nourishment from the milkweed. Milkweed is delicious, and the shoots, buds, flowers, and immature seed pods are all edible. In spring and summer it has become one of our main vegetables. We like the young shoots as well as any other green vegetable, and the small seed pods are also good, having a taste and texture a little like okra.

But it’s the shoots that we really crave. We prepare them all the different ways that we eat asparagus: grilled, sautéed, chilled as a salad. We eat more than our small patch produces, so we gather them in bunches from a couple of old fields in the neighborhood. We’re happy foraging, but we like to grow as much as we eat, so last year we planted another, larger patch on our own property. This year we’re growing still more from seed.

As their name suggests, milkweeds are easy to grow. In the case of common milkweed, maybe too easy—at least from the perspective of gardeners looking for tight control of their plantings. Two of our favorite native plant authorities, Donald Leopold and William Cullina, both write in their respective native plant guides that the common milkweed is perhaps too invasive for garden settings. Again we’re left with the “problem” of a delicious, native plant that simply wants to take over. That’s OK with us. Our long-term goal for our land here is to restore native seed stock and then let the plants themselves figure out what will grow where.

As for the milkweed, rather than trying to constrain them to formal garden beds, we’re after what Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm described seeing when he traveled through northern New England in the mid-eighteenth century: “The Asclepias syriaca…grows abundant in the country, on the sides of hills which lie near rivers, as well as in a dry and open place in the woods and in a rich, loose soil. Its flowers are very fragrant, and when in season, they fill the woods with their sweet exhalations and make it agreeable to travel in them, especially in the evenings.” Kalm also noted that the French in Canada ate the young shoots, “preparing them like asparagus,” which they of course had learned from the Wabanaki or Iroqouis.

We love asparagus, the non-native garden vegetable that everyone is familiar with. We’d been growing it for years in our annual vegetable garden, assiduously weeding around the fussy plants, composting and mulching the beds. But last summer we decided to take them out, in large part because of how they measured up in comparison to milkweed. In taste they are equal, or nearly so.

In summer asparagus was my favorite green vegetable to grill over a fire, but I like the taste of milkweed just as well. Tanya likes it more. Beyond taste, asparagus just doesn’t measure up. The plants take up a lot of space, offering only a handful of stalks each year in return. No other part of the plant is edible or useful. They dislike competition, and so require a lot of work weeding and mulching. As non-natives, they aren’t integrated into our woodland ecology, and so support few insect species. Milkweed plants are the opposite in most regards. The plants produce a lot of food in a small space. In addition to the edible parts, the pods contain a down that was used as bedding and pillow stuffing (French colonists called the plant le cotonnier), and the fibrous stalks provided material for a tough cordage. Milkweed is a vigorous perennial that requires no tending.

The semi-rural area where we live has plenty of old fields, where milkweed grows most abundantly, and since few people eat it (or even know it’s edible), for now we can gather as much as we can eat. But more important than any of these other factors is the symphony that milkweed plays to the dance of insect life.

Nothing better distills what we are trying to achieve on our homestead than making milkweed a part of our diet and personal economy. The two pictures capture what I mean by an ecology of home probably better than all the words I’ve written in this space. We live off the grid in a small house, heat with wood, compost our own waste, garden organically, et cetera et cetera, but none of these things gives me quite as much satisfaction as the ecological and economic relationships implicit in a plate of milkweed shoots. Dinner may be the most potent force we have available for restoring our ecologies and our place in the world.

Further Reading:

Regarding the edibility of milkweed all of the wild food guidebooks and cookbooks on my shelf, except for one, tell the same story: milkweed is bitter and should be boiled in several changes of water to remove the bitterness. This has not been our experience, and the one book that tells the story that matches our own experience is Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest. He also traces the genealogy of the error about milkweed’s supposed bitterness back to a misidentification made by Euell Gibbons. Thayer’s two wild food books are highly recommended. It probably goes without saying, but please don’t use this essay as a field guide.

The quote from Peter Kalm is reproduced in Medicinal and other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown.