© Kat Morgenstern June 2007
Some foragers get truly ecstatic when you whisper the word 'cattail' into their ear. Their eyes glaze over and you'd better have some tissue handy in case they start drooling. I am not quite as enamoured with them, but I admit that they are a great all round (and all year round) foraging plant. Indeed, in times gone by some hunter and gatherers relied on it as one of their staple foods. Cattail offers two great advantages: a) it is an extremely rich source ofstarch and b) it is available throughout the year.
Almost every part of Cattail is useful or edible. In spring, when the flower spikes first emerge, the unripe, green female part is picked. These are often referred to as 'cobs' and indeed, they somewhat resemble baby corn on the cob. However, their inner core is quite wiry and can't be eaten. To prepare them, boil them for a few minutes until tender and season with salt and butter. They can be nibbled like corn on the cob, although this can be a little fiddly, since unlike corn, they are not very big. Another method would be to scrape off the tender, grainy part and mix it either with another grain, like Quinoa or Bulghar wheat, or, as Euell Gibbons recommends, blend it in a ratio of 2:1 with breadcrumbs, 1 beaten egg and perhaps a little cheese, season to taste and bake in a casserole. Imaginative wild weed chefs might dream up endless variations on this type of theme.
If you did not raid the entire stand of cattails for their cobs you will soon afterwards be rewarded with a harvest of pollen. The pollen is the yellow stuff that develops on the male part of the flower, which is the skinny bit on top of the brown velvety female flower part. Pollen develops in quite plentiful quantities, so if you catch it before the wind distributes it in the surrounding swamp, you can easily collect a sizable amount. However, harvesting the pollen does require a little practice. The best method is to carefully bend the top of the spike over and cover with a paper or plastic bag (bread bags are great). Shake the stem vigorously. If you have a decent size patch of Cattails to harvest you should be able to quickly gather a pound or more. The pollen can be used like flour, although it is best mixed with regular flour. You can substitute up to 30-50% of regular flour in a recipe with cattail pollen. The pollen-flour imparts a fine flavour along with a lovely yellow colour to your cookies, pancakes, muffins or what have you.
The rootstock can also be turned into usable flour, although the processing is quite hard work. First you have to pull them up from the swamp and clean them thoroughly. It is best to peel them immediately, as the outer peel comes off more easily while the root is fresh. Once cleaned and peeled the root is chopped into smaller pieces and dried. Finally the dried roots can be ground and sifted until only a fine flour remains that can be used for baking. Euell Gibbons suggests his own method of processing, which isn't a whole lot easier, but yields a better tasting flour (according to his account at least - I haven't tried this method myself to verify). His method starts off by cleaning and peeling the roots, just like in the previous example, but then, instead of chopping and drying them, he washes and crushes them in a bucket of water until all the fibres are separated and the starch has been washed out. Allowing the starch to settle at the bottom, one can separate the 'wheat from the chaff' as it were. The slimy water can be discarded. Fresh water is added and the starch is stirred up and washed some more. Two to three such rinses thoroughly clean the starch and refine it. On the last round allow the starch to firmly settle at the bottom of your bucket before you drain off all the water you can squeeze from it. The remaining flour can be dried or used immediately, as is.
But even that does not exhaust the options for what this productive plant has to offer. When the young plants emerge and are about 2 feet high one can 'pull their hearts out' as it were - the inner white part of the young shoots is a tender delicacy, which can be eaten raw or boiled to resemble asparagus. The young plants develop from knobs that form on the rhizomes, and these too can be collected before they grow into actual plants. They can be eaten either raw in salads, or baked or boiled as a starchy vegetable side.
The only inedible parts of Cattails are the leaves, but even they have their uses. Cattail and reeds, for that matter, are important fibre plants. Cattail leaves can be collected, freed of their central spine and dried. Once dried they are re-hydrated to make them pliable before they are woven into matting, as used to be used for making seating of chairs, or woven into 'grass-baskets' or Panama style hats.
However, having said all this about this amazingly versatile plant, there are a few things to consider before you delve into a Cattail foraging frenzy.
Firstly, Cattails usually grow in slow flowing or stagnant waters, which are often highly polluted. In fact, cattails provide a valuable cleaning service by filtering out toxins from such murky streams. So harvesting the roots for example not only impairs Mother Nature's filtering system, but also means that these toxins will end up in your filtering system instead.
Also, Reeds, Rushes and Cattails all help to stabilize river banks and stop erosion. Wetlands are a fragile and endangered habitat. Many species of waterfowl depend on them as a nesting place. Crashing through the rushes and reeds during nesting season as you poke around for edible parts puts a lot of stress on the birds. Thus consider carefully when and where you are going to pick and what you are going to harvest.
Personally I do not harvest any roots or shoots in order to avoid negatively impacting next year's growth. The pollen and the cobs are by far the safest and easiest parts to collect. Furthermore, it requires some skill to distinguish young Cattails from young Yellow Irises - which are poisonous, so unless you are an experienced forager and know how to distinguish these plants before their flowering parts appear, it may be better to leave those young plants alone.
Last, but not least, Cattail is said to have a certain emmanogogue action and should therefore be avoided during pregnancy.
Cattail Banana Muffins
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