Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Showy Milkweed

Asclepias speciosa- named after Asclepius, th' greek god of healing.
Showy Milkweed

Showy Milkweed
Here in northern Colorado, showy milkweed is th' species we see th' most. This is the milkweed of fields and roadsides around Ft. Collins. It spreads by it's rhizomes, so it usually grows in groups, which is to th' benefit of th' harvesters, be they us or th' bugs that so love this plant. It's white latex has been traditionally applied to open wounds and skin infections, particularly warts. It is very sticky, and i imagine it could be used as a temporary glue if needed. It is food for th' monarch caterpillar, and more commonly out here, th' swallowtail, and it is also a host to numerous beneficial insects. (Are there any non-beneficial insects?)

swallowtail catterpillar

Aside from all th' amazing bug life this plant provides for, it also provides some of our favorite vegetables, as well as medicine, and a very insulating and waterproof filling material. In late spring/early summer it pops up in shoots that very much resemble asparagus spears, only lighter in color, and usually fatter and shorter. Cook them anyway you'd cook asparagus, but expect that distinctly, and in my opinion better, milkweed flavor. I've never found any bitterness in milkweed, in fact, it's quite sweet and floral. I know i'm just one person telling you this amongst many hundreds of wild food books and websites saying otherwise, but try it for yourself and you be th' judge. Ignore all th' warnings about multiple water changes, they are unnecessary. Just know your milkweed. Taste a bit in th' field, if it's th' worst thing you've ever put in your mouth it's dogbane, not milkweed. Where we live th' dogbane comes up much earlier than th' milkweed, so if you find shoots unusually early, watch out. I've tasted dogbane, and it's absolutely repulsive. I'm not interested in boiling things in multiple changes of water. I'm interested in good food, and there's plenty out there that cooks up just fine th' first time.

Th' next vegetable this plant provides are th' young flower buds. We usually eat a few raw and then cook th' rest. When we show these to people they always make a comment about how they look like broccoli- and they do, but they taste like milkweed. Use them any way you'd use broccoli. Remember when picking, these are going to turn into flowers, and then pods, so keep that in mind and don't pick all of them. I usually pick a third of th' buds and leave th' rest to grow.

milkweed flower buds
milkweed buds, closeup
Th' next, and perhaps most unique, food provided by this most amazing plant is it's seed pod.

milkweed with seed pods
You want to get these while they're young and still growing, about one to two inches long is optimum. As they age th' silks get stringy and fibrous, but when young they are tender, creamy and absolutely unlike any other vegetable around. It is really two foods in one, with the outer pod being somewhat like a green bean, and the inner seeds and silks being like themselves, for their is nothing else like them. We eat these any way we can think of, but here's a few photos of some.

milkweed pod pizza

cooked up with eggplant spagheti

batter dipped and fried

fried milkweed pods.
I don't think i've met anyone who hasn't liked milkweed pods, so don't be afraid to try them if you find some. Be careful though, i've seen a lot of them around here sprayed with poison, which surprises me because they are a native plant. If you see any signs of spray, such as mutated growth, or if there's a lot of leafy spurge in th' same field, chances are they've been poisoned. 

Later in th' season, after th' pods turn brown, you can collect th' fluff to use as a stuffing. I stuffed a pilllow with it and have slept on it over a year now and it's as good as new. Th' fluff is very insulating, which you will quickly realize when you work with it a bit, you can hold it in your hands and feel your hands heating up. There's directions for separating th' seeds from th' silks in an earlier post here

milkweed pod at right stage for harvesting silk
Th' dried stalks of milkweed make an excellent fiber for spinning or twisting into rope. To get an idea of how important rope/string is to us, look around your house, notice everything made from strings, then try to imagine your life without those things. It'd be a pretty different picture.  I'll do a separate post on rope making in th' future, but here's a small piece twisted up to give an idea of what can be done. I have hopes to one day clean and spin enough to have beth make me a sweater from milkweed, as this fiber is pretty soft when cleaned well.

milkweed double reverse twisted rope.
Well, i hope this post has been useful for you, and maybe next time you see this lovely plant, you'll see much more than just another "weed." That's all for now. 

Cheers. ~Rico

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Choke Cherry Season

Choke Cherry Season has arrived!

ripe colorado choke cherries
 I've written about these before, but here's another look. These were staple food crops of indians traveling through and living in th' rocky mountain region, and it's no wonder, they are absolutely fabulous. Of course my family seems to be the only ones we know who think so, but the Kiowa knew, the Cheyenne knew, the Lakota knew. They also made tea from th' twigs and inner bark, and drank it for pleasure and sore throats.

 We are grateful to be living at th' base of the foothills, so now we have ripe chokecherries. We can drive up the canyons into th' mountains and find cherries just turning purple, which will be ripe in a few weeks, and cherries just turning red, which will be ripe in a month or so. So that makes our harvest season from mid july-september, and we take full advantage of it, mostly making fruit leather, which we eat almost faster than we can make it. It's delicious. Gives you energy too. Makes you feel like a kid. What grown-ups do you know that get giddy over fruit leather? We do.

Choke cherries turn black long before they ripen, you'll know they're ripe when they strip easily from th' tree, with just th' brush of your hand pulling them down. If it takes force, leave 'em be a while. I just pull my hand gently down th' clusters and all th' ripe ones fall in. Then i'll come back later and try again, or just leave 'em for th' bears and coons. And with our massive fire, there's gonna be some hungry bears this summer and fall. 

i picked these in under twenty minutes.
 Here they are strained and spread out to dry. I first mash them through a fruit strainer, then take all that's left and put it in a skillet, add a little water and simmer for about ten minutes. This i'll run through th' strainer again and then spread it all out about a quarter of an inch thick and let it dry in th' sun.
choke cherry fruit leather dryin in th' sun
 Once it's dry to th' touch i slice it up, let it dry a bit longer, then flip it over. Usually at this point we can no longer resist the urge to eat and by th' time it's dry half of it's gone. But it only needs to be dry to keep it, and we want to eat it. Never the less, some of it does get dry, and we eat fruit leather proper. To read more about it click here