Cat on the cob

As I walked past a part of the little creek that flows by my house, I saw two lonely cattails growing on the bank.  click to enlarge - immature cattail flowersI smiled to myself to know that a little stand of cattails had started growing so close to my home.  I felt tempted to eat them, but I wanted them to thrive.  But as I looked over the little plants, I suddenly realized that one of them had already formed its flowers, and the male flower had already gone to pollen.  “Oh, wow!” I thought to myself, “We have almost reached the Summer Solstice: time for gathering cattail flowers and pollen.”  The next day, a friend called me wanting to go foraging, and I told her that she had called at a perfect time.

A sizable marsh winds its way through a corner of a field not too far from my house.  The creek that feeds it wanders right past the old apartments where I used to live six years ago.  It often amazes me that in the time I lived there, I never took advantage of the bounty of cattails that line the banks of this little creek.

I had a great time introducing my human friend to some new plant friends.  As Euell Gibbons points out, you can often harvest every edible part of a cattail during the summer.  Some of the male flowers had already gone to pollen, while some stood shrouded in their sheaths, and yet others had disrobed themselves but had not yet matured.  We even found a few younger plants with no flower stalks that provided a taste of the delicious Cossack’s asparagus.  However, the flowers offered the best harvest at this point.

The little creek had a few other happy surprises for us as well.  Midst the moist shade of the cattails’ shadows grew some jewelweed, with its beautiful, bright orange flowers.  I got to show my friend the touch-me-not seeds that explode when they make contact and shoot their seeds out with bullet-like force.  We also used the juice of the jewelweed stalks to treat the myriad scratches on our legs from wandering through the weeds.

click to enlarge - immature flowers (top); slightly mature flowers (bottom)After the foraging, I had to figure out what to do with the flowers I brought home.  I had eaten raw cattail flowers before, but I had never tasted them after cooking.  I also wanted to try to preserve some to use later in the year.  So I sorted the flowers from my foraging bag into two groups.  Some had not matured at all (top) and showed no pollen development, and some had already started to develop their pollen (bottom).  I decided to cook these two groups separately to see how they differed from each other.

click to enlarge - boiling immature cattail flowersI boiled the immature flowers for 10 minutes and drained them out.  Cooking them this way filled the house with a smell reminiscent of sweet corn and asparagus.  The flowers tasted amazing fresh off the boil but started to lose palatability as they began to cool down.  I decided that if I ever try to hold a dinner party involving cattail flowers, that Euell Gibbons’s method (noted in both Stalking the Wild Asparagus and  Stalking the Good Life) would likely do best.  He recommends seving the flowers upright in a carafe of water that you heat over a Sterno and placing a pat of butter on top of the water to melt.  That way, when you pull a cattail flower out of the carafe, the melted butter will coat the length of the flower, perfectly coating it.  The moisture from the water and oil should also help to offset the somewhat mealy texture of the flowers.

click to enlarge - scraping the flower material away from the coreSince I had more cattail flowers than I cared to eat at the moment, I wanted to save some.  I figured that freezing them would work best, so I decided to scrape the flower meat off of the central wood-like “cob” and then freeze the pulp for later.  A fork worked really well for scraping the “corn” off of its “cob”.  I  simply drove the flower between two of the fork’s tines, and pulled the fork down the length of the core.  The meat often came free from the core intact which offered excellent views of the flower’s construction.  Notice the detail of the flower construction when you click on the pictures below.

click to enlargeclick to enlargeclick to enlarge

click to enlarge - cooking semi-mature cattail flowersWhile I scraped the cooked, immature flowers from their core, I cooked up the batch of semi-mature flowers that had started going to pollen.  These produced a similar corn-asparagus aroma while they cooked, but they also made the cooking water noticeably yellow.  They tasted similar but not quite as pungent as the younger flowers.  Also, since they contained more fibrous material, they seemed to retain more water after draining, so they had a juicer, more diluted flavor.

click to enlarge - semi-mature flowers (left) have longer, less dense fibers than the fully immature flowers (right)I scraped the semi-mature flowers from the core as well and put the two types of cooked flowers into different canning jars to store in my freezer.  Notice the difference between the larger fibers of the semi-mature flowers in the jar on the left and the denser fibers of the completely immature flowers in the jar on the right.  The flowers sit now in my freezer, waiting for me to figure out some delicious recipe to use them in.  Any suggestions?

~ I wrote this post in e-prime ~

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I found this article awesome! Penny and I almost made something with cattail pollen… but we forgot. I guess we had other things on our minds…

    Reply

  2. Hi,

    I found your link on Wiki. I’d like to know more information about Cat tails and there edible properties.
    We have a state park about 6 miles away with cat tail swamps so thick you can’t even walk through them.

    What do they taste like? THey are not poisonous?
    I had a very odd dream two weeks ago, came out of no where that they are healing and have cancer curing properties. I don’t know why I dreamt it, but trying to research some of the chemical properties of cat tails since I’ve studied medicine in the past and have done some medical research.
    Odd I know.
    Thanks for this article by the way! Very enlightening.
    –Boops

    Reply

  3. Posted by Rix on 12/07/2007 at 2:13 pm

    What do they taste like?

    The young shoots taste kind of like a cucumber with a very slight hint of ginger. The cobs taste a little like corn. The pollen tastes slightly corn-like as well.

    They are not poisonous?

    Nope.

    I had a very odd dream two weeks ago, came out of no where that they are healing and have cancer curing properties. I don’t know why I dreamt it, but trying to research some of the chemical properties of cat tails since I’ve studied medicine in the past and have done some medical research.

    I don’t know about cancer-curing properties. But the gel that you find between the bases of the leaves has a very soothing and healing quality for cuts and other skin irritations — kind of like aloe.

    Reply

  4. Posted by NatureNut360 on 03/26/2008 at 1:54 pm

    Hey, i found this book called Foraging for Dinner by Helen Ross Russel, and she says thats there’s a differance between how the top bumpy part of a cattail and the fuzzy part below it taste. any experiance with this?

    Reply

  5. Posted by Rix on 03/26/2008 at 2:35 pm

    NatureNut, I assume you mean the difference between the male flower on top and the female flower below. The female flower doesn’t offer much edible mass. You can scrape the pulp from it to eat, but I wouldn’t bother, as the male flowers, the pollen, and the young stalks offer much easier food possibilities. See The Tale of the Cattail – Part Two: Getting to Know You for a more in-depth description of the cattail’s florescence.

    Reply

  6. the cattial tops are the only thing I still have not tried the plants are just starting to grow here cant wait to try it out…

    Reply

  7. I picked a shopping bag and a half of cattail flowers last weekend, but only got around to shucking them (like corn) today. They went the entire week in the fridge without trouble. I vacuum sealed most of them in bags (uncooked, still on the spike) and put them in the freezer for use later in the year. I ate a bunch this evening boiled with garlic butter. I saved some more (unfrozen) to try a cattail flower pickle recipe I found on the net, and plan on trying some other recipes in the near future. I love cattail flowers, and have even gotten a few family members hooked on them too.

    Reply

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