The Tale of the Cattail – Part One: Boy Meets Plant

I fell in love with cattails among the wetlands of New Jersey. It was probably June 2002 when I first tasted the mealy flowers of a cattail bloom spike. I was working for some old guy who would harvest wildflowers in New Jersey to sell to florists in Manhattan. On the first day I found myself wearing rubber boots, sitting on an upturned milk crate in a swamp next to some train tracks in norther New Jersey, cutting cattail leaves, thinking “I know these things are somehow edible. I can’t wait to get home and research what I can eat!”

We worked 10 to 12 hour days for that old guy, so it was a long time before I was back at my apartment in Morningside Heights, pouring over my field guides investigating the possibilities. I hadn’t gone on any Wildman foraging tours yet and hadn’t bought his book, nor had I yet discovered Euell Gibbons’ works. But I did discover the various parts of a maturing cattail that are good to eat.

The next day we were out in the fields, and I was sad to learn that we weren’t returning to the swamp. I’m sure it’s the first time in the history of swamp-related manual labor that someone actually wanted to go back. But my spirits perked up when we got to the field full of oxeye daisies to be cut and there was a small stand of cattails in the ditch alongside the field. It was only my second day out, and I was already eating a new species. I tried to share my discovery with the other two guys I was working with, but they found it only mildly interesting (and they probably found me mildly disturbing.)

I needn’t have worried about not working amid cattails again, though. As the summer progressed, we found often ourselves in swamps and marshes. The smell of cattails and the sounds of their leaves swooshing became immensely familiar. Though our “business” in the swamps was strictly geared toward cutting a product for the Manhattan floral market, I didn’t let that stop me from following my own agenda of trying to learn and eat as many new species as possible that summer.

By the next time we were cutting cattails, I had already gotten myself a copy of Steve Brill’s book, and had learned about the cattail heart or “Cossack’s asparagus”. This core of the plant where the leaves are coming out of the ground is a delicious treat that reminds most field guide authors of cucumber (although I find it also has a slight spiciness as well, similar to a very faint ginger taste).

After the summer (and my job) was over, it was a long time before I tasted cattails again. I was eventually able to find a decent-sized marsh in New York City when I discovered Van Cortlandt Park up in the Bronx. I would often make trips up there from time to time just to amble through the marsh, munching on cattail hearts as I went. I missed the edible male flower spikes that year, but I was able to gather some cattail pollen from the mature male spikes–not enough to do any baking with, mind you, but enough to taste the golden graininess.

Continued in Part Two: Getting to Know You

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Plants « The Tale of the Cattail – Part One: Boy Meets Plant […]

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  2. […] Another cattail blog Published March 13th, 2007 plant-usage , cattails , blogging Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to do any field research this weekend in order to continue my series The Tale of the Cattail. […]

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  3. […] love caribou, Arctic char, salmon and cattail hearts. Cattail hearts are great, you have to pick them just after they flower and you can eat the bottom […]

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