Chef Alan Bergo shares his experience cooking with milkweed pods. Learn what to do with the milkweed pods found on plants at the end of the season. Harvest and save the seeds for late fall or winter sowing. The Monarch Joint Venture is a partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs that are working together to support and coordinate efforts to protect the monarch butterfly migration across the lower 48 United States.
Note: This post only covers harvesting and cooking the edible pods of milkweed. For a full breakdown of every edible part of the plant I know, please refer to my Guide to Milkweed.
There’s lots of wild plants out there, but it’s rare to find a plant that produces something similar to what you might cook like a garden “vegetable”. Milkweed is one of the anomalies, over a season it has 3 different parts than more or less resemble unique little vegetables. After the young shoots and buds form in the Spring and early Summer the pods are the last of the milkweed vegetables to enjoy in late summer, they’re not to be missed.
There was a big learning curve for me in between the time I found out milkweed pods could be eaten and my understanding of how to forage, cook, and most importantly, enjoy them. With shoots and flower buds prep is pretty straightforward: toss them in a hot pan, apply seasoning and eat. The pods require the most technique by far, and for a couple of years confused me to the point where I thought there was no way people were actually eating these things, all of the pods I had were tough, stringy, or full of seeds. As you might expect, I was wrong.
I pick from an organic cow pasture, not from the road-side unless the road is rarely traveled out in the country.
How to pick pods you can eat
This is the most important thing to know, but the most complicated to comprehend. If you read a guide that actually talks about eating milkweed (most don’t except for Sam) there’s likely to be a sentence to the tune of: “young pods need to be 1-2″ long to eat”. This isn’t a casual request, it’s the difference between enjoying eating something, and ingesting something. Eating should be fun, ingesting is just like it sounds.
The pods on a milkweed plant mature at slightly different rates, it’s not like something along the lines of lamb’s quarter or say asparagus. Just because there’s pods on a plant doesn’t mean it should be eaten. Resist the temptation to pick all the pods except the ones that are very small, as much for the fact that they taste better as that it’s not good to pick all of anything, except morels.
All of these pods can be eaten. Not pictured are the majority of the pods that were too old to eat.
Here’s a few tips/excercises:
1. Don’t pick pods that have a slit that opens easily, they should resist opening.
2. All pods should have a soft, pure white interior, the seed/silk inside shouldn’t show any signs of color.
3. The pods should not be noticeably soft, they should be firm, a bit like okra.
4. Older pods may have pronounced “spines”.
5. Find pods of different sizes and ages, then bite them. You’ll quickly learn about which are tender and which are stringy.
6. Don’t be afraid to pick very small pods, they’re excellent.
What’s inside the pods?
That’s milkweed silk, or immature seeds, and it begs the question: “what constitutes a vegetable”, it’s edible, and has a fine flavor, but should be be mixed other ingredients to form a dish. My friend Sam likes to call it milkweed “white”.
The useful part about it from my perspective is that milkweed silk is often at an edible stage when the outer green shell has become too stringy to enjoy, so even if you’re a little late to the party at the milkweed patch, it doesn’t mean you have to go home empty handed, just crack open the pods to make sure the seeds don’t have any color to them yet, they should be perfectly white. I have gone out just to collect the silk sometimes.
The pod on the left has edible seeds, the pod on the right doesn’t. The color easily tells you the difference.
The silk has a softness to it almost like a sort of cheese, and it follows that it makes a funky cheese substitute, or fun gratin style dish or baked dip mixed with cheese and a few other mild things (I like cooked onions and a pinch of garlic, or sour cream, mayonnaise and hot chili).
Unlike cheese, the milkweed silk will not completely melt, and depending on the stage of development of the seeds, it may be a little more chewy or textural depending on how far along the development of the seeds is. For more, see my post on Milkweed Silk.
Harvesting, Cooking and Storage
I have an organic cow pasture where I pick mine, but a decent open space should do, just resist from picking them on busy roadsides. Sometimes I’ll pick them on country roads that are seldom used, but this can mean you have to rinse things carefully for sand as those roads are generally gravel. I twist the youngest pods off with my fingers, and leave older pods on the plant to grow and feed other creatures.
I store the pods in paper bags with damp cloths, or in plastic bags lined with cloths with some holes sliced in it to allow air flow. I have had milkweed pods last for over a month at a time at a restaurant cooler with proper storage.
I like to cut larger pods into rounds for even shapes, that way every bite can fit on a spoon. Notice how the under-developed silk is attached to the outer skin, it isn’t free to remove easily like older pods that will be stringy and tough.
For the most part when I want to cook the pods I just throw them in a hot pan and cook, most of the time I like to use a wet preparation, especially with tomatoes. Milkweed pods have a bit of a spongy texture, so I like to use a minimal amount of oil when cooking them. Using a large amount of oil, or frying them up with other starchy vegetables like potatoes could make them sit in your stomach like a lead brick.
Young pods make fun pickles.
The okra similarity
I alluded to them tasting like okra earlier for a reason. Okra and milkweed share a lot of similarities, the only one they really don’t share compositionally is the mucilagenous thickening quality that okra has. Besides the mucilage, they’re pretty much interchangeable, bread and fry them, saute, braise, bake in a juicy casserole, or better yet pickle them, just like okra.
They have a lot of flavor friends like I mention above, substituting them for okra or places where it could be used is a good start. They love the vegetables and flavors of summer, fresh, bright herbs, tomatoes, and Mediterranean style recipes, but that could just be my European training talking, milkweed curry is bound to be great too.
Whatever you do, don’t make it too complicated or heavy, keep it light (don’t reach for that cream) so you can taste the flavor, it’s green, delicate, it tastes like Summer.
When the pods hit a hot pan or water, they’ll turn a beautiful green for you.
Do you need to boil / blanch them?
I don’t, but if it’s your first time trying them, you probably should, as some people are apparently more sensitive to milkweed than others. Either way, make sure to cook them through, and don’t eat pounds of them (or anything) in a single sitting. If it’s your first time eating milkweed pods, blanch them in boiling salted water for a minute or two first.
When serving them, it’s also good to give people who haven’t had them before small amounts at first to test for allergies. Even if people aren’t “allergic”, I’ve heard of gastro-intestinal distress from over-eating other parts of the plant, but remember some people get tummy aches from milk too. Moderation, in all things, including milkweed.
Are they good to stuff?
No. But I understand why people want to. Most food that has a natural cavity (morels for example) make great stuffing candidates. The problem with the milkweed pods is that by the time they’re big enough to stuff, the outer skin is too tough.
Don’t feel bad though, with the lack of resources and information for cooking with these, it’s easy to make mistakes, I have too. To me, stuffing them involves removing the inner, undeveloped silk, which is part of the plant and perfectly edible as it is. Removing it, when the plant could be just thrown in a pan and cooked as is, to me, is over-complicating things.
You could possibly stuff the pod on the left, and it would still be tender, but I prefer to just cook them like they are, it’s a more natural approach. Experiment if you want though.
A number of years ago I was cooking a wild food dinner at a restaurant with a James Beard Award-nominated chef. The chef had fried, foie gras stuffed milkweed pods on one of the courses for our dinner.
I suspected they would be picking the biggest, fattest pods possible and unfortunately I was right. Every single plate I saw come back had only nibbles out of the costly stuffed pods the chef was so proud of, and had wasted so much expensive foie on. Once the guests discovered the sinewy, tough strands in the pods skin were about as edible as plastic tie handcuffs, they didn’t bother to touch them and I wouldn’t have either.
Milkweed pods: How to collect and harvest milkweed seeds
Growing up, finding milkweed pods on a woodland walk was like stumbling across buried treasure. I would delightedly open the pods to reveal the silky bounty and then toss those soft strands in the air to watch them float away in the wind. Attached to those strands are milkweed seeds.
I’ve long since learned the value of milkweed plants to monarch populations. They are the only larval host plant where monarch butterflies will lay eggs, and a food source for those hungry monarch caterpillars. The variety I’d stumble across as a child would have been Common milkweed, ubiquitous in sunny areas at the edge of forests, throughout hydro corridors, and along roadsides. For many years, those growing locales were in decline. And Common milkweed was once on my province’s noxious weeds list! Luckily it’s since been removed, as the importance of growing milkweed for the monarch species’ survival has been so well conveyed to the public.
Common milkweed pods are easy to find and forage. If you don’t care to save the seeds, in late fall you can shake out the silk, allowing the seeds to float away. The cold weather of winter will allow them to go through the necessary stratification process. And next year, you just may find some new plants in your garden.
North America is home to over 100 species of milkweed, but only about a quarter of them have been identified as being host plants for monarch butterflies. If you’d like to plant your own milkweed seeds, the best thing you can do is source the pods from the area in which you live. Check with your local environmental or monarch organizations to see if you can find any documentation and photos of milkweed that commonly grow in your region.
Identifying milkweed pods
Three milkweeds that are prevalent throughout North America are Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Common milkweed is probably the easiest to find. Just look for a dry area , like a ditch . Where I live, I see it along my local rail trail, and at the sunny edges of forests where I mountain bike. The pods are pretty easy to spot in a landscape, especially towards the fall as other plants die back. It’s hard to describe the shape of the pods, but they’re basically conical or horn-shaped (but the cone part is at both ends). The pods are usually pointing upwards.
And apparently they’re tasty! Milkweed seed pods are edible. On her Backyard Forager website, Ellen Zachos, author of The Forager’s Pantry: Cooking with Wild Edibles shares some milkweed recipes, including one for deep fried milkweed pods.
If you see milkweed pods while on a walk, make sure you’re able to identify the variety, so you know what you’re bringing back to your garden. This is Common milkweed, which is native to my region.
If you’re going to forage, it’s important that you don’t take milkweed pods from someone’s property without asking first. (Trust me, I’ve been tempted!) They may be saving those pods for their own garden. And as is common practice with any foraging, don’t take all the pods from one area. Leave some pods to naturally open and reseed themselves.
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which was named the Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association in 2017, is native to Ontario, where I live, as well as Quebec and much of the United States.
How do you know milkweed pods are ready to pick?
Milkweed pods are usually ready to pick in late summer, into early October and even November. And they don’t all ripen at once! To collect seeds, it’s easier if you get to the pods before they split. The seed pod will start to dry out, eventually splitting open on its own. While some pods may start to turn brown, a milkweed pod could still be green, but be ready to harvest.
If the center seam pops open from gentle pressure , the pod is ready to pick. If it doesn’t open by pressing gently, it’s not yet ready.
Ripe seeds are brown in color. White, cream, or pale-colored seeds are not ready to be harvested.
It’s easier to collect milkweed seeds—and separate them from the silk—if you get to the pods right before they split open. Ripe seeds are brown.
What to do with your milkweed pods
Once you’ve pried open the pod, grab the center stalk from the pointed end, and gently tear it away. You may want to hold your pod over a container to catch any extra seeds. Holding the end of that stalk, you can gently pull the seeds off the milkweed silk. Slide your thumb down as you go, so the silk doesn’t come loose.
If you’re not going to collect seeds from your pods right away, avoid leaving them wet in plastic bags. Unwanted moisture can lead to mold. Separate the seeds as soon as possible.
There are other ways to remove the seeds from the silk that involve vacuums and DIY contraptions (you can find info on the Xerces Society website). Another recommendation if you find a milkweed pod that’s split, is to put the fluff and seeds in a paper bag with a few coins. Give the bag a good shake. Then, snip a hole in the corner of the bottom of the bag to pour out the seeds.
Some milkweed pods can hold over 200 seeds inside!
There are three things you can do with milkweed pods that are ready to harvest:
- Leave them on the plant and let nature do its thing
- Open the pods and scatter the seeds in the late fall
- Save the seeds to plant in the winter
Storing milkweed seeds
To store your seeds, make sure they are completely dry. Then, put them into a sealed jar or Ziploc bag in the refrigerator until winter when you’re ready to plant them.
Jessica’s article on how to grow perennial milkweeds from seed provides all the details for late autumn or early winter sowing.
Milkweed pests that damage the seeds
There are a few insect pests that enjoy milkweed, such as the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and the small milkweed bug aka common milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmia). The nymphs have a needle-like mouthpart that pierces the milkweed pod, and sucks the juice out of the seed, rendering them un-plantable.
Adult red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) are herbivores, feeding on the leaves, stems, and seed pods of milkweed plants.
The common or small milkweed bug looks VERY similar to the boxelder bug. However it’s not a huge threat to monarchs, even though it eats milkweed seeds.
Don’t worry about eliminating them all. In fact it’s recommended that you leave milkweed bugs be as part of your local eco-system. Try planting more milkweed throughout different parts of your garden to provide more food.
This milkweed pod and the seeds inside have been damaged by milkweed bugs. You can see a healthy, untouched pod, from the same plant, in the background.
Another threat to milkweed plants is the Japanese beetle (Popilla japonica). They feed on the flowers, preventing the plants from forming seedheads at the end of the season. If you see these insects on your milkweeds, a bucket of soapy water will take care of them.
Milkweed Seed Collection
If you have access to native milkweed seeds, here are some tips for seed collection that you can use to share seeds with different conservation organizations or community/neighborhood projects, or to plant yourself and expand habitat for monarchs!
Guidelines for Seed Collection
What to collect
Know your milkweeds! If you do not know the species, collect for personal use only. Propagation space is the most valuable space in the greenhouse, so mislabeled or mixed seeds can cost nurseries and distributors money. Do not collect seeds of rare or endangered milkweed species.
It is easiest to identify species when they are in bloom. If you are planning to collect certain species, identify each species before the seed pods form.
High priority milkweed seeds needed include (Monarch Watch Milkweed Market):
- Asclepias tuberosa – butterflyweed
- A. incarnata – swamp milkweed
- A. verticillata – whorled milkweed
- A. perennis – aquatic milkweed
- A. oenotheroides – side cluster (W. Texas)
- A. asperula (W. Texas) – antelope-horns, spider milkweed
Only send native, wild milkweed seeds. Distributors and nurseries want to be able to promise their plants came from a native milkweed population
Check the seeds for viability before putting a lot of work into it. Break a few seeds open. The exterior of the seeds should be brown. If they are distinctly creamy white on the inside (of the seed), they are viable. If they are brown or black and paper thin on the inside, they are not good seeds.
When to collect
Collect only ripe pods. Pods do not always ripen at the same time, so you should assess each pod individually. You do not need to remove the pod from the plant to assess ripeness.
Pods are ripe when they open at the seam with light pressure. If the seam does not split open with a gentle squeeze or press, the pod is likely not ripe yet.
Ripe seeds will be brown.
How to collect
Split the pod at the seam and peel open. Use your fingers to pull the seeds and the silk out.
Do not collect open pods with numerous milkweed bugs on the seeds or pods. Avoid introducing milkweed bugs into the bags in which you are placing pods.
It is always best to collect only a portion of the seeds in a particular location and leave some for natural regeneration.
Distributors and nurseries always prefer to receive seed that has been separated from the pods and silk because there’s not always time to do it promptly. There are many different ways to do this:
- To watch a video of how to do this by hand, click here.
- To watch a video of how to do this with a vacuum and a sifter, click here.
- To watch a video of how to do this with a vacuum and homemade seed separator, click here.
- You can put the silk material and seeds in a paper bag with stones or coins and shake it to separate the silk from the seeds, then cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag to pour the seeds out and keep the rest contained.
- In a dryer on the cool setting, you can put the silk material and seeds in a closed, cloth bag with a tennis ball.
Labeling Your Milkweed Seeds
Labeling the seeds you collect is incredibly important. Be sure to record the species name, collection location, date, and your contact information. It’s helpful to bring labels with you to your collection site so you can fill it out while you collect. Wild Ones has an excellent resource that includes printable labels.
- Store moist pods or seeds in breathable containers, such as paper bags.
- For long term storage and dry seeds, use plastic containers. If you are collecting the seeds for yourself, friends or family, store the dry seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator. They may remain viable for years if you do this!
Seed Packaging for Distribution
If you are planning to send your seeds to a nursery or distributor, be sure to properly package your seeds before shipment.