The beauty of the migrating butterfly known as the Monarch is so cherished that large swaths of the population have mobilized to save this iconic migrator. While most other insects rarely make the news, Monarch butterflies have attained a fame that not many insects could ever hope to achieve. With bad news coming from so many sectors of society, here is one area in which we can have a very large impact. Planting and maintaining a patch of Common Milkweed or Asclepias syriaca has giant repercussions not only for the Monarchs, but also for a variety of other insects and humans as well. Common Milkweed is also one of the easiest native plants to grow, and if you are not careful you could end up with too many!
The Monarch Butterfly or Danaus plexippus if you prefer its scientific name, is at a very vulnerable place in time right now. These butterflies have a unique existence in which their only means of reproduction occur on the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). Contrary to popular belief, there are 73 distinct species of Milkweed in the U.S. 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 any number of milkweed species, depending on the place that they are in, and the young emerge and feed on these plants.
Over the centuries a remarkable coevolution has been occurring between these two species. Monarch butterflies have adapted in numerous ways to be able to not only use this plant species to feed its young, but to also use it as housing. This plant, in its raw form is generally poisonous to everything that eats it, but the 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 coevolution.
Overwintering sites for these migrating butterflies are in a variety of locations in the southern US and in Mexico. Coupling that fact with their relatively short lifespan of only 2-5 weeks, we know that the Monarch populations that we see in Northern Michigan could be 4-5 generations removed from the original traveller. It is vital for these migrators to arrive here with a hefty supply of food to feed their young. The paradox here is that the most endemic species of Milkweed in our area, and their preferred food source is the Common Milkweed, and by the time these butterflies arrive in Michigan our Common Milkweeds may be too old and tough for most of the Monarch caterpillars to feed on!
This is where we foragers get to help in the cause by feeding ourselves. Over my years of teaching foraging, I have come to see that occasionally a selfish act is actually the opposite. It’s what I would call a win-win-win. We benefit, by getting to eat a delicious and healthy vegetable, the Monarchs benefit with fresh and tender leaves to feed their young, and the Milkweed benefits because rhizomatic plants grow more dense with disturbance. 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 underground rhizome spreads rapidly underground 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 both the Monarchs, the Milkweed, and us humans.
Common Milkweed shoots, are extremely delicious when properly prepared. I must stress here that this food does require 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, the compounds that we need to get rid of are easily extracted in boiling water. My personal preparation of A. syriaca shoots is to boil them in water, toss out the water and eat with some salt and butter. Delicious. The possibilities are endless here. All manner of exquisite cuisine can be made with Milkweed shoots. The many Native American tribes that were in this plants extensive range ate this vegetable every single spring.
It should go without saying that we should never take all of the milkweed shoots in any single patch that we come across. This has implications for humans as well as the monarchs. Not only does leaving some behind help us stagger the later harvests of flowers and then pods, but it also staggers the harvest of leaves for the incoming Monarchs. It is also worth noting that Monarchs are not the only critter that enjoys milkweed. Many pollinators love this plant for its beautiful flowers.
It is also imperative that you properly identify the milkweed that you are eating as Asclepias syriaca, and not any other Milkweed or a toxic Dogbane. By far my favorite method of teaching people to ID Common Milkweed is to show them how to identify last years dead stalks. If you can identify last years dead stalks, with their signature opened greyish pods, then you have won half the battle. Another fantastic differentiator is that Milkweed has fuzz and Dogbane is smooth and shiny. While both of these 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 to properly identify Common Milkweed 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 Asclepias syriaca, I recommend “The Foragers Harvest” by Sam Thayer.
Gardening and Monarch conservation groups all recommend cutting back your common milkweed 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.
It is facts like this that keep me motivated to continue foraging. Because the evidence keeps mounting that our impact on our natural world can be of very great benefit to the natural world. Which runs contrary to the current ideology surrounding forest management and ecosystem maintenance. Nature is not now, and has never been a museum. All creatures create a ripple of effects throughout the ecosystem that they use. Many things that humans forage are increased by their use, not decreased. This phenomenon is discussed in the amazing book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Sam Thayer the 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 of the other creatures out there in the wild. This idea runs contrary to our modern farming mentality, and I believe that it is about time that we started to challenge our norms in regards to how we interact with nature.
Each and every fall as the leaves begin to fall, I go out and find the crunchy milkweed pods that are starting to open. I open these pods and spread their seeds, often taking them to new places that are lacking in this plant. This is how I give thanks for a plant that feeds my community and myself over the span of a few months. And herein lies the paradox that many hunters are well aware of: Those that engage with and take from a population learn to love that plant or animal and have a vested interest in expanding the population. And so it goes that those that eat Milkweed, and learn to love its flavor do more to expand it than the population of people that do not.
There is a giant beautiful web of interconnectedness that spans the entire world, and it is this interconnectedness that makes the natural world so wonderful to behold. Indigenous people all over the globe knew the proper ways to interact with their environments, some of them learned by making mistakes, others learned by interaction and observation. Either way they knew that humans are natural and a part of the landscape that can be of great benefit if we interact wisely with nature. It would be a shame to see nature atrophy from a lack of 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 millenia, knowing that your meal actually helps a population of butterflies that came all the way from Mexico.