Save the Monarchs: Planting and Using Milkweed

My wild food goal is to learn one or two plants to identify and start using each season. This year, the importance of one of them fell into my lap. Bees are not the only pollinator threatened, our monarch populations are on the decline.

I ran across an article on the Denver Post that explains how GMO crops made to be resistant to herbicides are being sprayed for weeds, and this spray is causing a decline in milkweed plants that monarchs need for breeding. The impact seems to be more than small, the Smithsonian reports a 90% decline in migrating monarch populations over the last two decades. Why has this news taken so long to get to me? Where on earth have I been?

That is so sad, just thinking of the beautiful migration, those lovely trees covered in massive amounts of butterflies no longer existing, that just hurts my heart.

This also made me sad for three other reasons. One, I know the importance of pollinators. Food is kind of an important thing, it would be sad if we had less food. Two, I’ve always wanted to try milkweed pod pickles (small pods can be pickled like capers), and this new fermentation pickle thing I’m so all over right now makes this possibility seem even more fun. If milkweed were harder to find, that possibility might not ever become actuality. Three, milkweed has fibers that can be spun into rope or used in paper making. I already spin, and I’d love to start making my own paper (I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for discarded broken screens to use). There’s a ton more uses too, check out my milkweed page in the new foraging section (more articles are definitely coming in that section).

Seriously, one of the reasons I love to spin my own yarn is so that when someone says they like my sweater, I can say “thanks, I made the yarn myself. Got that golden color by dyeing it with coffee grounds.” Their eyes totally pop out of their heads, you’ve so just won the interaction. I think it would be cool to make a milkweed purse (with the end of the season plants that are going dormant so as to not damage the supply) and pull that same trick.

Milkweed seeds

So, this is a problem that has a remedy. If we start planting milkweed in our gardens, or scatter the seeds around fields and other places that may give the plant a chance to grow (scatter in late fall), we can help provide the Monarch with this plant that is so critical to their survival. Growing it in your own garden (perfect for a butterfly garden in general, or a child’s garden) is one route to take. Another thing you can do if you don’t have access to your own garden is to encourage your child’s school (and some non-profit organizations) to apply for free plants. I’ve already emailed my son’s science teacher (she said it was perfect, they’re about to study ecosystems).

I have seen debate about this. I’ve heard the argument we should not mess with nature, that we could disrupt ecosystems and nature is better left on it’s own. Perhaps, but in some situations (and this one is very much included in that) we’ve already messed with nature, that’s the problem. If you are planting local species, things that are already a part of the ecosystem and are not likely to take over the area, then situations like this call for action.

Know what to plant though. The popular tropical milkweed species may actually damage monarch populations. Asclepias curassavica is green all year long, where species native to America die back in the winter. This dying back is important for two reasons. One, when it dies back it kills any potential infestation of a parasitic protozoa that weakens monarchs and makes them unable to survive during the migration. The plant dying back keeps this protozoa under control, as when the plant returns in the spring it will be parasite free. Two, if the plants don’t die off in the winter, the monarch migration patterns are disrupted, thus disrupting the cycles that monarchs have evolved to thrive under. (Three, the dying back plant can be harvested for fiber and paper ’cause I’ve got the greedy.)

So, A. curassavica is out as an option. Asclepias syriaca on the other hand is native to most of North America (including Canada). This is the species I highly recommend spreading, if you live within its native area. If you don’t, take a look at the milkweeds from where you are. If it isn’t A. syriaca, it won’t be that edible so go ahead and see what that page recommends is needed to balance out your local ecosystem, (or do that if you don’t plan on harvesting any edibles from your crop).

To find seeds, The Xerces Society has an online seed locator that may be of help. I’ve also seen them for sale on eBay and I found some sources of seed online, but I want to make sure that I get Asclepias syriaca, because I want to possibly eat it, and some sources were offering mixed species, did not list the species, or annoyed me by acting like the seeds were free but then asked for a “donation” or charged shipping rates that equaled the usual cost of a pack of seeds. I ended up going with an eBay purchase myself. Make sure to do your search by the species name and that the name is clearly stated as the product.

The milkweed seeds I bought

Seeds are best started indoors. I’m all ready for it, I’ve been saving plastic egg cartons. The only free range eggs at my local store come in a crate of clear plastic. At first I didn’t like that, I wanted cardboard that is biodegradable. However, it’s a nice little greenhouse so I do get some re-usability out of it at least.

Milkweed seeds need cold stratification, they will not germinate correctly unless they think winter has come and gone. This can mean that you plant them outside during the fall, or you can keep them in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks. My seed packet recommends 30 days. I’ve done this only once before, you soak the seeds in water for a day in the refrigerator, then you either plant them and keep them in the refrigerator or you place them inside a moist paper towel that is then tucked into a plastic baggie.

My seeds did not germinate last time (I tried passion fruit), but this time I have more seeds. I scarified (scratched the seed lightly with a pin) some of them. I’m going to try planting in soil rather than the paper towel method this time, hopefully that works. I covered with just a tiny layer of soil and watered with a spray bottle to prevent disturbing placement on my seeds. In theory, once I bring them out next month they should start to germinate (not before they are removed).

Wish me luck. If I can get a few seeds to grow, I may end up watching them in whatever wild spot I take them to and gather more seeds for next year.

If you wish to check around your area for milkweed that is already growing, take a look at the new foraging section that I have under my banner. There is a page on foraging basics, and a milkweed page gets to be the first plant up. I’ve got things in progress that will help that section start to grow soon.

(Something just occurred to me. If I do make that milkweed purse, I can say I actually started from seed. How’s that for making something from scratch?)


Posts around the web:

How to fix a butterfly’s wing. Wow. This is dedication to the cause.

Monarch Watch has several resources (including the previously mentioned free plants for schools and non-profits), especially resources to help teach your kids more about monarchs or links to other sites on the subject.

Rotten Rotters, and Blogging Blogger Reading About Rotten Rot

Well, reading and blogging about fermentation anyway. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m slowly getting information pages, more graphics, and some book reviews on that navigation bar above my banner. Right now I’m happiest about the fact that I did my first interview. A tiny little mini-interview, but an interview all the same.

This still being a brand-spanking new hobby blog with only a handful of traffic, I didn’t want to bother him overly much, but my review of The Art of Fermentation includes a snippet from the voice actor Sean Crisden. I became curious about what kind of effect the experience of performing the book had upon him, and he was kind enough to reply. This encourages me, I might start trying to do interviews more often.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the fermentation thing is doing it’s bubbly, tasty, tangy thing. I’ve been playing around and learning quite a bit.

I’ve learned that I don’t like dosas. This is a sad thing for me to say, our diet is lentil and rice based pretty much. I would have liked to have found a new way to prepare them, and it’s very seldom that I say I don’t like something.

I learned that I love fresh cabbages and beets. This was a shock. I thought I disliked them. Turns out that I just don’t like canned beets, or my grandma’s overcooked cabbage (don’t worry, she can’t figure out the internet past Facebook, my secret’s safe here). If I hadn’t been playing around with kraut and kvass, I never would have realized how tasty they are.

I also learned that I don’t just like raw cabbage, I like love lust sauerkraut. I knew I liked it, but naturally fermented… well I’m going to need more things to make it in. What I thought would last a month lasted only a little more than a week. My first batch was in a gallon jar with a smaller jar inside of it holding down a trimmed plastic coffee can lid. Normally I hate plastic. I do what I can to avoid it, but I’m not above reusing it if it’s already in my home. I’ll do anything I can to avoid throwing it away. My hatred has a lot more to do with the environment than health (but I definitely won’t reuse plastics labeled #1).

Which is why I shocked myself when I bought my new toy.

Japanese pickling box for kimchi, here with sauerkraut to be.

In my defense, as a reusable object it’s built to last and at least isn’t disposable. BPA, lead, and DEHP free, comes in several sizes, and the inner lid keeps your vegges under the brine perfectly. So I caved and bought plastic to ferment in.


Kimchi pickling box in action

I mean, look at that. That’s kraut with grated carrots, I just salted and mixed it up, then put it in the box. After a few minutes, I pressed down on the inner lid and the brine came up with no massaging. I closed the airhole on the lid and now it’s in an anaerobic environment that is doing a lot better job of keeping vegges down below the brine than my hand cut lid did.

Now here’s the deal, my jar setup that I had ended up with kraut that was kind of rubbery and squeaky to eat. I massaged it a lot to get the brine out, I’m hoping that with less massaging and this box, and a thinner cut, I’ll end up with a better texture. Personally the taste more than made up for the texture for me, but I know I need to fix that before I try serving it to anyone else, or to get any chance at all of getting it into my son’s belly where I want it.

I’ve heard that pushing the veges under the brine is anaerobic, but a true anaerobic environment will get a better texture. So, I’m giving it a shot. I’m on a limited budget (in fact I had to give up coffee for the month to afford this) and this was a less expensive option than some of the airlock lids. I’ll compare the result of this batch to my jar experience and decide from that if I will invest in more of these boxes or look at other options. No matter what, this was a lot easier to get everything under the brine. Seems easy to reach in and taste as well, and easy to store compared to a jar with an airlock on it, I can stack these.

I’ll see though. If the result isn’t that much better than my jar setup, that won’t justify expense and environmental costs in my eyes. It would have to be something I know I’d be thrilled with my whole life if I’m going to buy another. I won’t regret this one though, I’m happy with it I just don’t know if I want to keep buying more.

In the meantime, my jar is going to make some pretty little beet kvass for me :).


Star kvass with beets, beet greens, carrots, and ginger

I put the beet greens in with my kvass, because this woman did, and she looks like she’s having fun. Possibly way too much fun. Anyway, she seemed to enjoy her results and I didn’t have to figure out what to do with the greens. Also, carrot stars because now my counter is all pretty. It makes me smile when I walk by. That’s ginger on top of the carrots, leftover from ginger ale making below.

I admit, I’m also curious. I’ve seen pics by bloggers with pretty little pickle jars, but not too many of the finished product get posted. I know pickles get cloudy and full of sediment, things change color and the whole jar looks like a vegetable graveyard full of pickle zombies. I kind of want to see what happens to this. I’m envisioning a monochromatic landscape, with lighter stars, looking like a watercolor where they only had a tube of magenta.

In a couple of days I’ll probably run the vegges through the juicer, I’ve been wondering what I’ll do with the pulp. I might throw some marinara in it and call it pasta sauce. I guess I’ll taste it and see.

Speaking of my juicer, it turns out that carrot and apple juice tastes very nice when a ginger bug is added to it. Even my son liked it and he hates carrots (I’m so hoping he’ll like the kvass). That pulp went into pancake batter and it was yummy.

Oh yes, my ginger bug jug has a new toy as well.

Hard ginger ale to be.

Now I can make the adult-only version of ginger ale with more confidence. This jug has some honey in it, but it’s otherwise only ginger with no other flavors. I’ve discovered that if I simmer my ginger root twice when making wort for ginger ale, what’s left is still worth dehydrating and saving with some decrease in spice but still worth powdering to flavor things. Or maybe keeping fresh in the refrigerator and adding to certain meals or soups (or that star kvass next to it).

This is very good news for me, as it means I use less ginger in my ginger ale and I manage to have something left over to cook and bake with, ginger is rather costly to me and I’d like it to last as long as possible.

What do you do with your leftovers? Like here I’m looking at what to do with kvass juicer pulp and spent ginger. I’ve heard of using beets from kvass in soup, but I’d love to hear more suggestions. If you have a recipe that’s suited toward using up all of the vegetable in various stages in any kind of ferment, avoiding waste or maximizing nutrition, do share.

Sourdough Aebleskiver Recipe (With a Super Amateurish Video!)

I wanted to post this the first week in December, as I hear this is a popular Danish holiday food. However, it turned out that making a stop motion animation super low-budget video is a lot more effort than one would think. I had fun with it though, I laughed out loud at how cheesy it was more than once. I do wish I had a better microphone, but I’m quite happy with the graphics. Yes, you heard me. I actually like how it turned out.

You will need an aebleskiver pan, and a pastry brush. You will need to know how to make clarified butter or ghee. You need a sourdough starter and if you don’t have one yet, I had great results with the pineapple juice starter (scroll down for a day by day breakdown). You need to know how to fold egg whites into batter, and if you don’t believe me about the necessity of whipping the egg whites, you should. Take a look at 2:30 on the same video, he’ll show you. In aebleskiver, that puff on flipping the pancake translates into the aebleskiver becoming nice and round.

If you don’t want to follow my recipe and would rather not do sourdough, there are plenty of recipes for aebleskiver online (or check out the book Ebelskivers by Kevin Crafts). You’ll still need everything else but the starter though.

My recipe for aebleskiver (makes between 18 and 25 ‘skivers):

2 cups (500g) sourdough starter
2 eggs (separated)
1 tsp (7g) salt
1/2 cup (125g) water or milk (if using powdered milk add 1/8 cup or 15g powder)
2 Tbsp (30g) sugar
2 Tbsp (18g) oil, ghee, or bacon drippings (in addition to the ghee to oil the wells)
1 tsp baking soda

These really are a wonderful treat, I haven’t yet found anyone who didn’t prefer them to pancakes. They go fast, but if you wish to make a large amount of them, they do freeze well (or so I hear). I keep my extras in the refrigerator and warm them up at about 300°F in the oven, they don’t hang around long enough to need freezing in this home.

This recipe is nothing more than my usual sourdough pancake recipe, but I do have a cookbook full of seriously tasty looking recipes (that I mentioned earlier). I’ve made a few of his recipes, including lemon poppy seed and peanut butter and jelly. The chocolate chip ones are good as well, though I found it works better to dump the chips in the center as a filling and not to mix them into the batter. One of these days I’ll try more of his suggestions (especially garlic bread with a mozzarella filling and a mariana dipping sauce).

I’ve also seen recipes around the web that suggest fillings such as jam, flavored cream cheese, nutella, custard, and various berries. I’ve heard of people making muffins, cake or brownies in them as well, though I don’t know if they used the stove top or the oven. I’ve heard that cake balls made in this pan are good to dip in icing.

You certainly don’t have to just make aebleskiver in this skillet. This is what happens when you hand me two boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix. One of these days I’m going to make a more savory cornbread from scratch and make these filled with cheese. I’ve also heard of making popovers in this skillet, hush puppies, jalapeno poppers, crab cakes, salmon cakes, and meatballs. If the thought of meatballs appeals to you, try doing a search on kofta recipes (there are so many versions from various cultures, I just don’t trust myself to pick one out for you!)

Cornbread aebleskier

The list of other foods that can be made in this skillet is probably way beyond my ability to list. Perhaps if I was an avid student of worldwide culinary culture, I might be able to tell you more. For one thing, aebleskiver may be the same thing or just very similar to poffertjes, I’m not entirely sure.

When I purchased mine, I browsed through the comments on Amazon and quickly saw that several cultures have their own versions of round breads, often made in very similar pans. The Japanese have takoyaki (filled with octopus, tempura, pickled ginger, and green onion). The Vietnamese have bánh khọt, which isn’t a round bread but can be made in this pan, and it looks like it would make an excellent appetizer that would serve as a conversation piece for us uncultured Americans, with rice flour, coconut milk, saffron, shrimp, pork, mung beans and a dipping sauce (here’s another page with a different recipe that includes beer, and a video).

Thailand has kanom krok, which is a coconut bread with rice flour and may include onions, corn, or cilantro as a filling. Several Indian recipes include bonda (with black pepper and curry in the rice flour and dipped in a coconut chutney),  ponganalu (filled with onions or corn and dipped in peanut chutney), and unni appam (which looks good and includes rice, banana, coconut, and sesame).

There is a Tamil (India, Sri Lanka, and South Asia) dish called kuzhi paniyaram that uses the same batter for dosa and idli, which is super fabulous news for me as my new copy of Wild Fermentation totally has this fermented lentil/rice batter given as a recipe, and a large part of my diet is already made up of lentils and rice. I already was thinking of making dosas soon, but knowing that I can use my nifty aebleskiver pan for my new fermented food kick is giving me quite a thrill. It’s nice to be so easily entertained, it really is.

Plus, if you have a super fancy grocery budget (can I come over for dinner?) I hear that the escargot pans are similar (though usually made of copper). I hear you put butter and perhaps a bit of garlic in the wells and sautée the little snails. I’ve never tried them, but I tend to be fairly adventurous with my foods and would certainly like to sample the recipe, though I doubt it will be in my near future.

Anyway, as you can see, this pan is no more a “one trick gadget” than a muffin tin is. Sure, I mostly use my muffin tin for muffins, but I’ve also made potato stacks in them and I know there’s a popular trend to use muffin tins for a variety of tiny casserole-type foods. And yes, I’ve only made aebleskiver and cornbread in my little skillet, but I know the potential is there to make more if I wish to break out of a culinary rut (and I so will be making trying that kuzhi paniyaram soon).  Get you one of these pans, use it, enjoy it, and your family will thank you for it :).

Related pages:

The Care and Feeding of Cast Iron

Ebelskivers: Danish-Style Filled Pancakes and Other Sweet and Savory Treats by Kevin Crafts.