Need water? Look for cattails. A sure sign of H2O, these bushy-topped marsh lovers do a lot more than just look cool – they’re actually a versatile and nutritious wild edible!
See if you can recognize them in the picture. Luckily, they’re pretty easy to identify by their tall, sword shaped green leaves and center stalk topped by a cigar shaped, furry looking seed head. In the wintertime, the seed head turns white and dies, but will frequently remain on the plant until spring along with the stalks, making them identifiable in even the darkest days of winter.
Nearly every part of the plant is useful. In the spring, pick the young shoots (which will eventually grow to form the center stalk), peel off the outer layers and eat raw, in salads, or cooked in stir-frys. The sticky jelly that comes off while peeling can be used to thicken soups, and was also used by Native Americans to soothe burns and wounds.
In early summer, the green flower head can be cooked and eaten similar to corn on the cob. Later on, the pollen from the male flowers can be used as flour or eaten raw, used as a spice would be. The Wild Man Steve Brill, my favorite scavenger, lists three great cattail recipes on his website – cattail fried rice, pasta with cattail, and raw cattail soup. (Be sure to also check out his tours featuring local wild edibles if you happen to be in the New York area) In the winter, the rhizomes, or roots, can be dug up and eaten by either boiling, or drying and grinding into flour. They can also be mashed in water. Let the mix sit for a few hours, drain off the water and the remaining starch can be used as a thickener for soups.
The dried outer leaves can be used for weaving projects, and the cattail was hugely popular with Native Americans for this purpose. The “fur” from the top of the plant is frequently used to help start campfires, as it is highly flammable. in addition, Native Americans burned cattails for their insect repelling properties.
Not only do cattails have nearly infinite uses, but they’re good for you, too! Low in saturated fat, sugar and sodium, they provide Iron, Phosphorous, Fiber, Vitamins K and B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese, and also contain anti-inflammatory properties.
If you see any around, try them in your next meal! Not only do they taste good and are good for you, but if found in the wild, they’re free! (And what’s better than free???) Just a couple disclaimers, though, before you go traipsing through wild marshland:
Stay away from cattails in marshes close to highways and farms, as the marshland they grow in may be polluted with runoff.
Stay away from the wild iris, which looks similar, but has a blue-purple flower, and no furry cattail top to the plant – its poisonous!
Be aware of your surroundings. Cattails usually grow in shallow water, but be careful not to venture too far into any marshlands, as the depth may unexpectedly increase.