Cattail; A Plant of a Thousand Gifts

Cattail, Typha Latifolia is a gift to us all. I’ve shared many beautiful moments with this plant throughout my life. Even just seeing it growing in the ditch is special. Almost every part of it is edible in some form, and I thoroughly enjoy every piece…It might be one of my favourite wild foods ever. I think I’m starting to say that too much. It is incredible how many things it offers to the world, and how distinct each one is.

Grocery store foods are only a very recent invention, spanning back a hundred years. Human beings have been harvesting many different species of Cattail (Typha sp) in the wild for what some theorize as more than 40 000 years. I’ve come to know Cattail more over the years, and I truly understood why people call it the supermarket of the wetlands.

You come back every couple of weeks with new gifts arising, it’s hard to miss the window because there’s always much to see.There isn’t anything out there like Cattail that has such important gifts of food, building, skin care, or who is such a steward of the landscape and waterways. At every part of the season Cattail shines it’s unique pieces. I am constantly in awe that I am still discovering more of its abilities in the world.

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Cattail not only has myriad physical uses, but has been there when I needed guidance most. I was at a cross roads in my life, feeling kind of lost with my own gifts that I wished to give to the world. I felt as if I couldn’t realize which gifts I wanted to cultivate more…Simply because I felt the need to share so much.

Feeling this way and being with Cattail made me realize that I can let all of those gifts shine, but that it’s important to try to focus in on one or two at a time. To move with the seasons of my gifts, just as Cattail does. In the spring it offers its shoots and a little later on, its unripe flower heads. In the fall its rhizomes and rhizome shoots. And so much more…from fire tinder, to baskets, these gifts unfold in life force.

Spring Shoots 

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The first gift it offers to the world in the spring are its delicious shoots. I could compare them to an asparagus and cucumber in flavour, but in reality these comparisons take away from the authenticity of it’s beautiful combination of texture and taste. You’ll start to notice the shoots spring up in May in Northern Ontario. It is the most fun in the world, jumping around the grassy islands that are the wetlands. You must feel out every piece of floating mud, and balance on it like the unpredictable, mossy surf board that it is.

When you approach the sprightly new green shoot you FIRST make sure you’ve got the right plant. There are many wild food books that point out the subtle differences between Blue Flag Iris species (can be toxic) and Cattail. It’s also super important to harvest these from a clean water source. In addition to that, be careful of snapping turtles. In other parts of the world I’m sure you have even bigger animals to be weary of.

Once you know you’ve got the right plant, you crouch down close to where the base of the plant exits the air and enters the watery swamp ground, and pull with two hands. Wear your rubber boots. Don’t pull too hard and do this slowly. With a steady motion, it almost pops out in a most satisfying sound and feeling. Sometimes they break if you pull too hard, but more often than not you can rejoice in having many beautiful vegetables to bring home for dinner. Remove the green tops of the shoots. Peel the outer layers, (sometimes peel more than you think), and fry up the shoots in a simple array of olive oil and salt at first so you can get to know this delicious flavour. Fry for 5-10 minutes on medium heat. And enjoy!

Sometimes you’ll notice that you didn’t peel enough of the layers as they are tougher to chew than the center or heart of the shoot. Don’t fret, just use your teeth to gently bite down without piercing through all the way, and pull out the heart from between the outer layers. So tasty! My love and I also barbecue them which is so enjoyable. You can keep some of the extra layers on when barbecuing to prevent the heart from becoming too charred. Once you get to know the flavour better, then you can let your culinary musings run wild, and try them in all kinds of dishes. They are super abundant and yummy.

Pascal Baudar has a recipe for Cattail shoot pickles! Check out his book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine.

Unripe Male Flower Heads 

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The next gift Cattail shares with the world is the unripe male flower heads. I love these just as much as the shoots. These start to come out early to mid summer. Usually around July in my neck of the woods. What you will come across when the male unripe flower heads are ready is two greenish to yellowish corn cob like heads. The heads should be dense. The lower one is the female, and the top is the male.

What you see in the Fall that looks like a brown pogo on a stick is actually the female flower head; it is what will persist. The male is the one you want at this time. You can break them off quite easily with your hands. If they’re too far gone (less dense in appearance) they will likely just be releasing their pollen. Scroll down to discover how to harvest. After you have a good amount of these male unripe flower heads, you peel the sheath off. At this point it really resembles a miniature corn!

Fry it up in the cast iron in an oil of your choice and salt for about 7 minutes until its nicely browned and enjoy. Although it kind of resembles corn, it is super distinct from corn. It is so delicious. A nutty flavour and has a spirit to it that feels very filling.

Pollen

Bring an extra container while you’re collecting the flower heads. You can harvest the pollen off of any of the flower heads that are past the stage for eating “corn on the cob” style. There is always some that are ready for pollen and some for eating unripe at the same time. Without breaking off the flower head, tip over the head and shake as best as you can into your container. I find an orange juice plastic bottle works great. Add the nutrient dense flour like pollen to your cake mixes, and anywhere else you use flour!

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Rhizome Shoots

The rhizome shoots of the cattail are just as delicious as the new spring shoots, with a touch of earthiness. You can taste that they’ve been growing in the depths of mud, and I truly mean this in the best way! The time to harvest is in late summer or early fall.

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So happy!

What you have to do is dig down underneath the cattail with your hands and follow the rhizome with your fingers. This will require extra digging and maneuvering around other sticks and swampy things. You keep following the branch of the rhizome until eventually you’ll reach an end point where the rhizome shoots out. These are the rhizome shoots. They are so delicious grilled over a fire, eaten raw, or steamed. It is incredibly satisfying work that our bodies and minds feel made for.

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Rhizome shoots we cut off of the rhizome about to hit the fire!

Rhizomes

You can also consume the rhizome itself. It has starches in the center of it that can be processed into flour. Samuel Thayers Book The Foragers Harvest has a great description of this process. I’ve never really bothered with this process, and love preparing them in a different way!

If you want to eat it that day, harvest it and start a good fire. Clean all of the muck off the outside of the rhizome by rinsing in the water. Once you have a good bed of coals, lay the rhizomes over them. Turn them over every few minutes. They will be nice and charred when they’re ready. At this point, split them length wise and chew out the inner white starch. It is delicious!

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The bottom half is the rhizome itself. The upper off shoots of the rhizome are incredibly tasty.

Phytoremediation

These plants are incredible caretakers of the land and waterways. They perform this remarkable process called phytoremediation where their bodies filter out the heavy metals and pollutants that reside in water. When humans are careless in agricultural, industrial, and military based settings, Cattails so graciously sacrifice their being to immobilize these pollutants.  Nature truly knows how to cleanse itself. Cattail shows us this in such a powerful way.

However, they no longer offer their food and medicinal gifts to us after they have experienced pollution. It’s imperative to know the history of the waters you have chosen to harvest Cattail from. Many people have gotten sick from eating this plant in polluted waters. If you are even the slightest bit unsure, don’t eat the Cattail parts, or cook them thoroughly.

Ecology

Cattail fluff that appears after the flower heads have gone to seed is used by many song birds as a nest material. It is a great insulative material that provides padding for baby birds. They also feed on the seeds themselves. Aquatic insects, Muskrats, Beavers, Canada Geese, Crayfish, and other animals radiate towards these beautiful plants to feed on the rhizome, leaves, and shoots. Frogs and Salamanders will lay their eggs on them. It’s caretaking energy makes me stumble over my words to describe…Cattail is such a friend to all things, and humans have largely forgotten this.

First Aid 

When you peel layers of Cattail from the heart, you will find this aloe like goo around the leaves. This is a great sun burn soother, and helps the skin to feel so much better. Also try it on dry skin, and minor abrasions for relief.

Basketry

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This incredible plant can be a catalyst for our berries of the summer, and gatherings of autumn mushrooms. There are many ways that you can create a basket by weaving Cattail leaves together. They’re best harvested when they’re green and turgid. For baskets, collect stronger pieces rather than small flimsy ones. There are many You Tube tutorials that will show you how to do this. Here’s a link for one.

Building

Cattail is also a great material for survival shelter walls, and can be weaved in a similar fashion that baskets are. The great thing about Cattails is that in the rainy weather they will swell and decrease the amount of moisture that gets inside the shelter. In hot dry weather they will shrivel up and allow wind to freely move through your shelter. In the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes this beautiful process. I highly recommend this book, it’s one of my absolute favourites!

Fluff

The fluff of the flower head has been used in many different instances. It’s used to stuff pillows, jackets, and sleeping bags. They’ve also been used in furniture cushions and many other applications.

Giving Back; Propagating Cattails

Sometimes merely harvesting part of the Cattails rhizome can open up space for the plant to shoot out and grow even more vigorously. You can also cut off pieces of the rhizome in the spring and plant them in areas where the water is relatively calm and still. This is ideally done in muck. They won’t grow well in sand. Near shorelines that don’t get a lot of wave action, in bays, and swampy areas are best. Dig a little hole in the muck and bury the rhizome; about the same depth as when you harvested it.

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In Conclusion

This is an amazing plant that has so much to offer the world. Its talents are many and becoming a friend to it has opened me up to more than I can ever fully express to you, dear reader. We are meant to work together. When you eat, build, or use Cattail in its thousands of potential ways, a beautiful relationship within ourselves, our food, and our landscape is created. Cattail is an incredible ally in our lives, and is a bridge between the landscape and our bloodline, water. Grow the void between foraging and growing, and give back by planting it. There is more to give to this amazing aquatic plant than ever before.

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Cattail seeds floating on the wind

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