CATTAILS:
The Supermarket Of The Swamps
By: DJ

Family: Poaceae, Grass family
Botanical Name: Typha latifolia
Common Names: Common Cattail, Cat-o'Nine Tails, Reed Mace, Swamp Brush, Cossacek Asparagus

Found in all parts of North America, cattails are easily identified and seldom hard to locate. Tall upright perennial herb with large, stout underground stems (rhizomes). Leaves are sheathed at the base of the stem and are narrow and sword like with a pointed tip. The flower is located at the top of a course stem with the male flowers densely clustered above the female shaft. The "Fruit" is the course downy shaft that will break apart in a ball of fluff in the autumn.

The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. Whatever you call it, a stand of cattails is as close as you'll get to finding a wild supermarket. Anywhere there is a stand of fairly still water there will usually be a herd of cattails swaying in the wind. Almost all parts of the cattail are edible at various times of the year and cattails can be harvested in every season including winter.

**Caution: Blue Flag (Iris versicolor)  and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus)  are poisonous and resemble a cattail. Only collect cattails where old stalks are present for easy identification.
Let their beauty fill your soul but never your stomach! Both are very poisonous and should be avoided and this is even more important when winter harvesting the roots of cattails. Proper identification is a must so only collect where the winter heads of cattails are abundant. People sometimes confuse cattails with the very common grass-like non-poisonous reeds (Phragmites species), which form dense stands twelve feet tall. But reeds have flag-like flowers, and leaves originating along the stalks. When the two species compete, reeds tolerate more salt, and wins out on land. But they can't grow in shallow water, like cattails. Young cattail shoots resemble nonpoisonous calamus (Acorus calamus), and poisonous daffodil (Amaryllidaceae) and iris (Iris species) shoots, which have similar leaves. If a stand is still topped by last year's cottony seed heads, you know you have the right plant. In spring, the cattail shoot has an odorless, tender, white, inner core that tastes sweet, mild, and pleasant-a far cry from the bitter poisonous plants, or the spicy, fragrant calamus. None of the lookalikes grows more than a few feet tall, so by mid-spring, the much larger cattail becomes unmistakable, even for beginners.

Cattails grow in marshes, swamps, ditches, and stagnant water-fresh or slightly brackish-worldwide. Finding them is a sure sign of water. Military survival specialist and author, Tom Squier, once found them completely out of habitat, in a dry, sandy pine forest. A short search revealed an open manhole from an abandoned storm sewer system, full of water

You can easily recognize a cattail stand: White, dense, furry, cigar-shaped over-wintered seed heads stand atop very long, stout stalks, even as the young shoots first emerge in early spring. The immature sword-like, pointed leaves, with parallel veins, resemble other wetland plants, but last year's stalks provide positive identification. A cattail stand is like a branching shrub lying on its side under the mud, with only the leaves and blossoms visible. The two most widespread species in the United States are the common cattail (Typha latifolia), which is larger and bears more food, and the narrow-leaf cattail (Typha augustifolia), also quite good.

By late spring, the light green leaves reach nearly nine feet tall, forming a sheath where they tightly embrace the stalk's base. The leaves hide the new flowerhead until it nears maturity. Peel them back to reveal it. The plant is so primitive-dating back to the time of the dinosaurs-that male and female flowers are separate on the stiff, two-parted flowerhead: The pollen-producing male is always on top, while the seed-bearing female is forever relegated to the bottom. Clearly, this species evolved long before the Sexual Revolution. (Biological speaking, this arrangement is effective because the male part withers away when its job is done, whereas the female part must remain connected to the rest of the plant until the seeds have matured and dispersed.)

Once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown "cigars"-also called candlewicks, punks, ducktails, and marsh beetles-consisting of thousands of tiny developing seeds. They whiten over the winter after the leaves die, and the cycle repeats.

The cattail's every part has uses. It's easy to harvest, very tasty, and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for the American Indians, who found it in such great supply they didn't need to cultivate it. The settlers missed out when they ignored this great food and destroyed its habitats, instead of cultivating it.

Before the flower forms, the shoots-prized as "Cossack's asparagus" in Russia-are fantastic. You can peel and eat them well into the summer. They're like a combination of tender zucchini and cucumbers, adding a refreshing texture and flavor to salads. I love mixing them with pungent mustard greens to balance their mildness. Added to soup towards the end of cooking, they retain a refreshing crunchiness. They're superb in stir-fry dishes, more than suitable for sandwiches, and excellent in virtually any context. I love sliced cattail hearts, sautéed in sesame oil with wild carrots and ginger.

Harvest cattail shoots after some dry weather, when the ground is solid, in the least muddy locations. Select the largest shoots that haven't begun to flower, and use both hands to separate the outer leaves from the core, all the way to the base of the plant. Now grab the inner core with both hands, as close to the base as possible, and pull it out. Peel and discard the outermost layers of leaves from the top down, until you reach the edible part, which is soft enough to pinch through with your thumbnail (the rule-of-thumb). There are more layers to discard toward the top, so you must do more peeling there. Cut off completely tough upper parts with a pocket knife or garden shears in the field, so you'll have less to carry. Note: Collecting shoots will cover your hands with a sticky, mucilaginous jelly. Scrape it off the plant into a plastic bag, and use it to impart a slight okra-like thickening effect to soups. The shoot provides beta-carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C.

You'll get the best yield just before the flowers begin to develop. A few huge, late-spring stalks provide enough delicious food for a meal. Some stalks grow tall, and become inedibly fibrous with developing flowers by late spring, although just before the summer solstice, you can often gather tender shoots, immature flower head, and pollen at the same time.

You can clip off and eat the male portions of the immature, green, flowerhead. Steam or simmer it for ten minutes. It tastes vaguely like its distant relative, corn, and there's even a central cob-like core. Because it's dry, serve it with a topping of sauce, seasoned oil, or butter. Sometimes I also gnaw on the cooked female portions, but there's very little to them. It's easier to remove the flesh from the woody core, if desired, after steaming. This adds a rich, filling element to any dish, and it's one of the best wild vegetarian sources of protein, unsaturated fat, and calories. It also provides beta-carotene and minerals.

When the male flowers ripen, just before the summer solstice, they produce considerable quantities of golden pollen. People pay outrageous prices in health stores for tiny capsules of the bee pollen-a source of minerals, enzymes, protein, and energy. Cattail pollen beats the commercial variety in flavor, energy content, freshness, nutrition, and price. To collect the pollen in its short season, wait for a few calm days, so your harvest isn't scattered by wind. Bend the flower head into a large paper bag and shake it gently. Keep the bag's opening as narrow as possible, so the pollen won't blow away. Sift out the trash, and use the pollen as golden flour in baking breads, muffins, pancakes, or waffles. It doesn't rise, and it's time-consuming to collect in quantity, so I generally mix it with at least three times as much whole-grain flour. You can also eat the pollen raw, sprinkled on yogurt, fruit shakes, oatmeal, and salads.

During fall, winter, and early spring, the cattail rhizomes store food. Digging up the thick, matted rhizomes from the muck, especially in cold weather, is not easy. After years of procrastination, I determined that, as a foraging teacher, the time had come to experiment with cattail rhizomes.

 

Flower

 

Shoot

ROOTS:


Cattail roots are gathered during any time of the year but they are best when gathered from late fall through early spring when the starch is concentrated in the roots. After spring, the roots slowly shrink, harden and become almost ropelike. Be careful not to use roots out of chemically polluted water. Cattail roots are excellent for providing starch in the diet. Some claim that cattail roots equal the potatoes in carbohydrates and rice or corn in protein.

To process the starch out of the roots, the roots can be peeled of left alone and crushed in cold water. Pour the liquid through a sieve to help separate the fiber from the liquid. Allow to set for a while to allow the white starch to settle to the bottom. Next pour the clear surface liquid off. Add new water, stir and repeat the process several times until all the fiber and particles are removed. After the final pouring off of the liquid, the starch can be used wet as flour thickener or dried in the sun and stored. Most like to mix cattail starch/flour with an equal mixture of wheat flour when baking.

SPROUTS/CORNS:

Cattail spouts/corns are gathered during late summer to winter. The horn shaped sprouts or corns grow from the tangled rootstocks at the base of the cattail. The sprouts can be cooked like a potato. At the base of each sprout is a lump of tender starch material that can be cooked in the same way.

SHOOTS:

Cattail shoots are gathered during the spring. They can easily spotted as the green shoots begin to grow out of last year's dead stubble. Cattail shoots are easy to collect when they are about two feet tall. Reach down to the base of the leaves and pull while twisting the shoot. The top of the plant above the roots will break off leaving the green leaves and the white inner shoot. Peal off the outer layers until you reach the white tender core. Boil or steam for ten minutes if you like them crispy or boil longer to make them softer. Add butter and salt for flavoring. Gather the shoots until they reach two feet tall.

FLOWER SPIKES:

Cattail flower spikes are gathered during late spring. The immature green flower spikes or flower buds are gathered before they begin to pollen. They are husked and cooked like corn. When done, eat like corn on the cob or you can cut the flower buds of the inner core like cut corn.

SEEDS:

Cattail seeds are gathered during the summer. The lower female section of the cattail pod produces the cattail seeds. The seeds can be mashed into flour that is rich in protein. If the silky part of the seed mass is bothersome, it can be ignited and burned off which will also parch the seeds.

POLLEN:

Cattail pollen is gathered during early spring. The seed head is divided into two parts with the male portion located above the female. The yellow male pollen can be rubbed, shaken or stripped off into to bag. The yellow powder is very high in protein. Sift the fine powder and use with wheat four in breads or pancakes or alone as a thickener in soups. The pollen can be eaten raw or cooked as a hot cereal. The pollen has a somewhat musty flavor. It can be kept in the freezer of many months or it can be dried for future use.

Other Uses


Recipes

Pasta with Cat's Tail

Cattail shoots fit into virtually any recipe, as demonstrated in this simple pasta dish.
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24 oz. any homemade pasta or commercial pasta
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1/2 cup olive oil
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1-1/2 lb. peeled, sliced cattail (Typha species) shoots or cucumbers
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4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
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1/2 cup parsley, goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), or waterleaf (Hydrophyllum species), finely chopped
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Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water along with 1 tbs. of the olive oil until al dente. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, sauté the cattail shoots in the remaining olive oil over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring often.
3. Add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes.
4. Add the pasta, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Heat through and serve at once.
Serves 6-8
Time: 30 minutes

Raw Cattail Soup
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2-1/2 cups almonds
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10 cups water, or as needed
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2 cups sliced cattail (Typha species) shoots, thinly sliced
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1/4 cup fresh spearmint (Mentha spicata) leaves or other mint leaves, finely chopped
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The juice of half a lemon

1. Cover the almonds with water and soak, refrigerated, 6 hours to overnight.
2. Puree the soaked almonds, about 2 cups at a time, with about 3 cups of the water at a time in a blender until all the almonds have been pureed.
3. Pour the almond-water puree into a colander lined with cheesecloth or thin nylon fabric over a bowl. Twist the top of the cloth and squeeze the remaining water.
4. Discard the pulp and mix the remaining ingredients with the almond milk. Serve chilled.

Cattail Soup
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1 lb. Cattail cores
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1/2 cup chopped onion
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1 can low-salt chicken broth (13-3/4 oz.)
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2 tbs. butter or margarine
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2 tbs. flour
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1 tsp. salt.
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Pinch of pepper
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1 cup milk
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1/2 cup sour cream
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1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

Cut cattail cores into 1/2 in. to 1-in. pieces. Put the cores, chopped onion, and 1/2 cup chicken broth in a saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until tender, about 12 min. Process the mixture in a blender to puree the vegetables. Set aside. In the same pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Blend in the flour, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 min. Don't let the mixture brown. Whisk in the remaining chicken broth. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture boils. Stir in the purée and the milk. Put the sour cream in a small bowl, ladle a little of the hot mixture into the sour cream to warm it, and stir to blend. Add the sour cream mixture and the lemon juice to the soup and stir well. Continue stirring while heating the soup to serving temperature, but don't allow it to boil. Garnish with fresh parsley or chives. Serve immediately.

Serves 6
Preparation Time: overnight + 20 min.

Cattail Pancakes
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1/2 cup dry cattail flour
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1/2 cup flour
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2 tablespoons baking powder
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1 teaspoon salt
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1 egg
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1 scant cup milk
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3 tablespoons oil

Mix and pour on hot griddle about a silver dollar's worth of batter. Cook until golden and serve with butter and syrup.

Whatcha Quick Bread

Whatcha bread is my own recipe based on "what are you" in the mood for, or better yet what do you have handy. I use this base recipe often when I cook and ingredients can be alternated easily to produce a moist bread or muffin. Later I will introduce everyone to my Whatcha yeast bread, which is also a family favorite.

Ÿ 1/2 cup butter
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1 C brown sugar or honey
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1 C applesauce, pumpkin pulp, or zucchini pulp
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1 1/4 C sifted white or wheat flour
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1 cup cattail flour, red clover flour or other flour
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1/2 t soda
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1/2 t salt
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1 t baking powder
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1/2 t powdered cloves
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1/2 t cinnamon
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1/4 t nutmeg
1/3 C chopped nuts or seeds-sunflower seeds are great in this recipe (optional)
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2/3 C raisins, dates, diced apples, diced peaches or other dried or fresh fruit (optional)

Cream butter & sugar until light: add applesauce & remaining ingredients. Pour into 9"x5"x3" loaf pan, lined on the bottom with wax paper. Bake @ 325° about 1 hr. This recipe also makes great muffins and - feel free to add any sort of nut you want.

Cattail Jelly

Use the dry root method for extracting the flour from the roots. After the first flour has been removed from the fibers boil the roots for 10 minutes in just enough water to cover them. Take 4 cups liquid and add four cups sugar and one box of commercial pectin. Bring to a hard boil and boil for one minute. Place in sterilized jars and seal.. This jelly has a wonderful honey color and is remarkably good.

Cattail Pollen Pancakes
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1/2 cup pollen
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1/2 cup flour
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2 tablespoons baking powder
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1 teaspoon salt
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1 egg
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1 scant cup milk
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3 tablespoons oil

Mix and pour on hot griddle about a silver dollar's worth of batter. Cook until golden and serve with butter and syrup.

Cattail Biscuits
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1/4 cup cattail pollen
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1-3/4 cup flour
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3 teaspoons baking powder
v
1 teaspoon salt
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4 Tablespoons shortening
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3/4 cup milk

Mix ingredients; roll out on a floured surface and cut biscuits. Place in 425 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Sauté
Sauté two cups sprouts with in oil or butter (about 2 tablespoons) one medium diced onion, 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms, one carrot sliced thinly, a pound of your choice of meat diced into 1/2 inch cubes. Add pepper, garlic, parsley, ginger or any spice of your choice. Dash of soy sauce for flavor. Thicken some of the excess juice with cornstarch and add to mixture to make a slight coating. Serve over steamed rice.

Stir Fry

Until plants are about two to three feet tall you can grasp the stalk and pull upward breaking off the root. Peel the stalk to reveal an inner core which can also be eaten raw, in a salad or cooked much like you would asparagus. These can be blanched and frozen for latter use. Sliced these make a wonderful addition to meat dishes or Chinese stir-fry.

Copyright 2000 DJ
No reprint or republication without express permission of author.