The Tale of the Cattail – Part Two: Getting to Know You

Continued from Part One: Boy Meets Plant

Let’s take a closer look at the cattail (Typha spp.).

We’re all familiar with the female cattail flower.  When you think of a cattail, this is what you’re thinking of.  It’s the elongated, brown, cigar-shaped flower that gives the plant its common name.  The distinctiveness of the female flower makes the cattail one of the most recognizable wild plants around.

The male flower grows just above the female and disappears once its job of pollinating is done (Typical male.)  There is sometimes a bit of flower stalk between the two flowers, or they can grow right on top of each other.  This bit of stalk between the flowers if often used to distinguish the difference between the two species T. latifolia and T. angustifolia, however there is often so much cross breeding between the two species that you may find characteristics of both in the same colony.

The male flower is edible when it is still covered in its papery sheath (much like a corn husk).  Both Wildman Steve Brill and Euell Gibbons (in Stalking the Wild Asparagus) recommend boiling them and serving them with some kind of oil or butter.  This is due to the dry texture of the flower.  Euell Gibbons would often report serving them in a carafe of water, heated over a Sterno, with a pat of butter floating on top.  That way, when you pull the flower spike out to eat it, the melted butter floating on top of the water will coat the flower as you removed it from the carafe, perfectly coating it (ibid and in Stalking the Good Life: My Love Affair With Nature).

You’ll have to eat around the stiff spike that the flower grows on.  This core is very woody and not palatable.  Instead of eating the flower like corn on the cob, you could also shave the flesh away from the core.  Brill recommends doing this after cooking.

The leaves of the cattail are pretty distinctive as well, once you learn to recognize them.  Brill reminds us to be careful not to confuse cattail leaves with non-poisonous calamus (Acorus spp.) leaves or with poisonous daffodil (Narcissus spp.) and iris (Iris spp.) shoots.  Calamus is noted for its spiciness and odor (being used as a fragrant floor covering).  Brill also notes that cattail leaves are odorless when broken, and their inner core is sweet, whereas the poisonous lookalikes would be bitter in taste.

The similarity between cattail leaves and daffodil or iris leaves is only comparable in early spring when the cattail leaves are very short.  As cattails can grow to be nine feet tall and are often at least waist high, as they mature, they will be far easier to distinguish between the small daffodils and irises which would only be a couple feet at most.  Daffodils are also one of the earliest blooming flowers in spring.  When in doubt, look for the dead cattail plants from the previous year which should be profuse in any enduring stand.

At the base of the cattail’s leaves is where you find the delicious Cossack’s asparagus.  You can pull the young plant up from the rhizome by grasping it at the base.  The leaves will come up easily from the root stock.  Peel back the green leaves until you find the white core inside at the base.  The edible part will be soft and will easily give way under pressure from your thumbnail or teeth so that you can distinguish it from the pale leaf bases that are growing out of the heart.  This soft core is the mild, cucumbery vegetable you’re after.

You needn’t worry about harming the plant by pulling it up from the root if you harvest in a thick stand of cattails.  Not only will the plant you have pulled up come back later in the year, but the cattail is also a colony plant that grows from a system of rhizomes that branch underground.  However, if the leaves are getting pretty tall you can allow the plant to keep growing by only pulling out the core.  Gently pull back the outer leaves from the core before you pull the plant up from its root, then grasp the core and pull it out of the middle of the plant.

Continued in Part Three: Root of Controversy

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4 responses to this post.

  1. […] Plants « The Tale of the Cattail – Part Two: Getting to Know You […]

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  2. […] jewelweed to name a few.  I had just passed through the marsh and collected a few of the delicious Cossack’s asparagus from the cattails growing there, when the tour came up on the marsh.  The tour guide gave a little […]

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  3. […] « Blog migration The Tale of the Cattail – Part Two: Getting to Know You […]

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  4. Posted by alex burroughs on 02/03/2011 at 6:38 pm

    This is fun connecting with folks who know and love Euell Gibbons “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” Years ago my husband and I explored and experimented using that as our guide.

    Now I am looking for information about the ‘buck flag’ which grows in several areas around the world. I was familiar with it in the Montezuma Wild Life Refuge at the northern end of Cayuga Lake in central New York State.

    The ‘buck flag’ is a shorter stalk than the female. In a healthy colony it grows quite wide 2-4 inches. The several layers of leaves are filled with juice contained in well-defined cells. Female plants grew among these, but they were narrow, hard-cored, woody and much taller with the characteristic cigar shaped flower.

    At the time I was harvesting them because they were shipped to Missouri and other places to be used to caulk whiskey barrels. Apparently, they contributed a unique flavor to the product of the distillation process. I enjoyed the extra money I made, spending all day under a gray November sky as v’s of geese wove in and out as the began their migration journey south.

    I would appreciate a response from anyone familiar with the biology of this particular type of cattail. Thank you.

    Reply

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