Milkweed is a rising star in my “favorite flowers” list, largely for its edibility: common eastern milkweed is edible at many different growing stages. The early shoots can be cooked like asparagus, the unopened flower buds taste like broccoli when added to a stew or stirfry, or like peas if dipped in a beer batter and fried, and half a dozen more moments of tastiness abound.
Amongst all those healthy vegetables on the plant, there is dessert, too: the newly opened flower blossoms can be blanched, battered, fried, and then dusted with a little powdered sugar for a dessert fritter fit for kings.
Meet Your Milkweeds
Start your friendship with your local milkweed plants by watching the blossoms. For fritters, you want the pale purple globes of the common eastern milkweed. I do not know if these grow west of the Rocky Mountains; y’all in California and whatnot need figure out how to tell common eastern from common western. I haven’t done it, but if you have, please leave a comment below.
Starting with the milkweed flowers lets you zero in on the common eastern milkweed quickly. Look around and see if you are seeing flowers that look pretty much like the pale purple globed flowers look, only they are white or a pale green or maybe even a creamy pale yellow. Don’t eat those flowers, but do note that you have them in the area. If you want to try the shoots of the common eastern next spring, find a patch of the pale purple globes that’s not intermixed with those others.
Also learn your dogbane. The flowers are very different from milkweed, but the young hairless stems and early leaves look very much like the common eastern milkweed: milkweed is reliably covered in a small layer of fuzzy hairs. Do not eat dogbane at any stage of its life. Do note where it grows near you.
But I digress…
Milkweed flower globes are typically in bloom for about four days. The fritters are best made in the first day or two of bloom. A plant typically produces several globes that bloom in succession, so let one bloom to verify you’re looking at the common eastern, and then watch the other blossoms swell and change from all green to dusky rose tipped. Just after they do that, they’ll bloom. (See photo above)
Once it’s flowered, clip the blossom down by the plant- that stem will be your handle for grabbing with tongs when you blanch, batter, and fry the flowers. These are a good lunch time treat because the flowers you harvest in the early morning will be sweeter than those harvested in the afternoon.
To blanch something is to dip it in boiling water, usually “til it wilts”; your goal here is to rid the flowers of any remnant traces of the milky sap. Steaming for a minute will also work, as the flowers have very little of the sap to begin with. Young leaves and unopened buds will need to be parboiled longer.
For battering the flowers, a thinned pancake batter or a thick-ish crepe batter works well. Funnel cake batter is good too. The flowers are intricate enough that the batter sticks pretty well.
Fry them in oil of some depth, this isn’t the dry-ish pan pancakes are cooked in, and turn them with tongs as needed. Drain on paper towels, and then sprinkle with powdered sugar or cinnamon and sugar. Enjoy!
An Alternative to Frying
Not feeling the need for more oil in your diet? The flowers can be boiled down in sugar water to create a lovely, delicate syrup. I’ve heard of this syrup being used to create glazes for light cakes.
One Final Bit of Joy
Common eastern milkweed is also the host for monarch butterfly caterpillars. If you find a caterpillar with thin, erratic, richly colored bands of orange, white, and black munching “your” milkweed leaves, you’ve found a friend. Leave them be; when you see a monarch later, it’s worth wondering if that’s the one you met before.