Wild Foods: Cattails

Cattail rhizome and shoot

Cattail Flower

I have joined John for another adventure, one I was a little apprehensive about doing but excited nonetheless. This class was all about learning to extract one part of the well-known cattail for edible purposes. We focused on the rhizomes, apparently there are many parts of the cattail that are edible, but it depends on season what part you can eat. The ideal time for rhizome consumption is late fall to early spring. You can eat the leaf bases in late springs and the flower head in early summer. Late summer brings us to pollen season, where you can use cattail pollen as a flour supplement or thickener, which I think is fascinating (gluten-free folks, take note!) It’s a Native American staple and learning about all the edible and medicinal uses of this plant which provides year round nourishment, I think it’s interesting we don’t really know much about this plant other than that it dries up wetlands and takes over. On second thought, I do know why we don’t harvest and process it in our modern ways, it’s labor intensive! you need a group that works together well! it takes a lot of work to extract a small amount of food. I’m glad I learned all about cattails but once again, it is a food source I wouldn’t seek out. Picking mushrooms is much easier and the woods don’t smell like a swamp.

Rhizome in the dry swamp

The day we set out to gather the rhizomes, we were unsure of the conditions. We were warned we might be chest deep in mud (which means I should bring a life jacket because I’d be under water). I packed a lot of clothes and the day was crisp and chilly. We geared up and headed into the swamp only to find that it was dry. It was more comfortable to sit in the dirt and dig out the rhizomes but it was much more difficult to get at the rhizomes themselves. It was like weeding on a large scale but you are digging underneath big tall cattails, trying to separate the rhizomes, which grow horizontally and criss cross over each other in multiple directions. The hard part was not just pulling these guys out with brute strength, we had to be delicate because there’s a lot of bacteria in swamp mud dirt and if that has contact with the inner starchy layer we were going to eat, there’s a chance of sickness. I think if it was muddy the rhizomes would have been easier to expose and separate, but that was not in the stars for us today.

Peeling away the outer layer

Cattails reproduce by sending out their rhizomes in a horizontal fashion, upon which new shoots grow vertically. In a way, they are cloning themselves much like aspens do. The new shoots are edible and taste somewhere between a water chestnut and celery. The part we were after was the rhizome, which we harvested as best we could and then washed and rinsed and washed and rinsed as well as we could. Once it was more or less clean, we had to peel away the outer layer, leaving us with a fibrous inner core that involved even more labor. A long slow process, we separated the starch from the fiber and dried the starch (it reminded me of arrowroot). Since we were all amateurs, a lot of fiber ended up with the starch, which means that upon pancake party time, there were some hairball pancakes.

Cattail Pancakes!

The pancakes John made for us were gluten free and he used the cattail starch instead of flour. The batter was a little thin and delicate, like crepe batter. The addition of tapioca starch helped a little with stability. But I have never had GF pancakes before, I’ll have to give them a try now and see if there’s any tweaking that can be done. Watch out, I’m going to open a food cart and sell cattails: 10 ways. Isn’t learning fun? Especially when eating is involved. I can’t wait for John to offer the seaweed identification class next year, I’ll be first on the list for that to harvest up some kombu.

2 Responses to “Wild Foods: Cattails”

  1. jeni treehugger Says:

    Gosh how exciting Kimmy! Cattails sound thrilling and I too am intrigued by cattail pollen as a flour supplement or thickener! Who knew! Well obviously the Native Americans did.
    Amazing post – I felt like I was there with you. Quite a dangerous sounding foraging though if you don’t know what you’re doing, but that can quite clearly be said of most foraging.

  2. Brenda Says:

    Kimmy, we have so many cattails on our property. We knew the plant was facinating and edible, but we have not actually utilized these plants. I wish I could find a market for them…I would be in the money. I had considered contacting local florists that may use them in arrangments, but I would have no idea how much to charge. If you decide to start using them, let me know.

    Wetland Brenda

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