In late spring or early summer, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) makes its appearance around the front range. It begins to peek up out of the grass as things get hot and a few weeks later it standing tall above the surrounding grass, its many buds are popping into beautiful, fragrant flowers.
Milkweed is best known as the only food source of monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is also often considered to be toxic. I remember learning as a child that it was a clever adaptation of the monarch butterfly caterpillars to eat only this plant, as its toxic sap made them unpalatable to predators. We were taught to stay away from it as children. But it seems that there may have been some confusion there.
In fact, it seems that milkweed has really been the target of one person’s mistake and a massive smear campaign. Milkweed looks very similar to a plant called dogbane, which IS toxic. It appears that in the past there was a single guidebook in which dogbane was misidentified as milkweed and considered toxic, and its reputation just never recovered.
I don’t know enough to say any of this for certain, that’s just what I have read. But what I can tell you with certainty is this: milkweed buds are delicious. They are great boiled or steamed like broccoli and tossed with a bit of butter and lemon. The buds, as you can imagine, also make excellent capers.
Capers, for those of you that don’t know, are pickled buds of the flinders rose. Though this plant is also known by the moniker “caper bush.” The flinders rose (Capparis spinosa) is native to the Mediterranean, which makes sense, given that capers almost certainly make you think of cuisines of that region.
This recipe is easy, and milkweed buds are plentiful. I’ve tried dandelion buds in the past, but the time it took to fill a jar with the tiny young buds was just way too much for me. Even practicing ethical foraging and only taking one bud cluster from each milkweed plant, you can fill a jar in minutes. So get out there and make some of these quick, before they all open!
Disclaimer: as with an foraging, make sure that you are 100% certain with your identification before you eat milkweed, and start with just a little bit. You never know how your body will react to a new food, so don’t dive in headfirst.
1 cup milkweed buds
2½ tbsp coarse salt
½ cup white wine vinegar
Wash the milkweed buds and trim them from the stems as best you can. Soak the buds in a brine of 2 tbsp coarse salt and 2 cups of water for 48 hours at room temperature. If you can, weight them down to keep them all under the surface. Otherwise, be sure to stir it up every once in a while to keep changing out which buds are exposed to the air and keep them all covered in brine as often as possible.
Once the buds have brined for 48 hours, drain them and put them into a jar for pickling. On the stove, heat a mixture of ½ cup water, ½ cup white wine vinegar, and ½ tbsp coarse salt. This may seem like a lot of salt, but these are meant to be a tangy, salty pop in a dish. Pour the vinegar mixture into the jar with the buds and seal.
That jar can be put in the refrigerator if you intend to use them within a few weeks, or it can be water bath canned and placed on the shelf. I would suggest allowing the buds to steep in the vinegar mixture for at least a few days before using them.