The Tale of the Cattail – Part Three: Root of Controversy

Continued from Part Two: Getting to Know You 

The underground part of the cattail has remained a mystery to me for quite some time.  It is reported to be very starchy and a good source of wintertime calories.  Euell Gibbons‘ proclamation of the cattail as “The Supermarket of the Swamps” in Stalking the Wild Asparagus likely has to do with the fact that you can find something edible or useful from this plant in the winter months as well as the usual spring and summer foraging seasons.

Wildman Steve Brill essentially dismisses the underground parts of the plant when he recounts his experiment in harvesting the rhizomes and processing the starch from them.  He states that “the digging and cleaning is so much work, I’d have to be starving in the winter to bother.”

In contrast, Gibbons seems to be able to live off the rhizomes almost like they were civilized tubers:

To supplement the stew we ate cattail rhizomes, cut into six-inch pieces and roasted before the fire.  When the outsides were browned, we peeled them and ate the inside.  They tasted remotely like roast sweet potato, but were full of fiber.  After chewing all the nourishment out of the fiber, we would spit it into the fire.  Inelegant, but sustaining.

— Stalking the Good Life: My Love Affair With Nature

Thomas J. Elpel in Participating in Nature supports Gibbons’ view of the viability of the rhizomes and root buds.  He even gives figures from a timed experiment in harvesting rhizomes and root buds (as he does for almost all the plants he describes in the book) saying that he can harvest half a gallon of root buds and over four gallons of rhizomes in one hour.  Granted, Elpel is an experienced forager, and I would not expect to be able to harvest anything as fast as he can until I had gained similar experience.

Let’s discuss these elusive and controversial subterranean parts of the plant.  As I mentioned before, the cattail grows off of rhizomes.  Think of a rhizome as an underground stem of the plant that sends the visible, above-ground leaves up from itself the same way that a tree branch sends out its own leaves.  The cattail’s rhizomes are generally whitish and wrinkly, connecting the visible plants or trailing off underground to start new plants.  In this picture, you can see how the plant bud (above the person’s forefinger) sprouts from the rhizome which trails off in opposite directions.  And in this picture, you can better see the wrinkly texture and creamy color of the rhizome.

So the question remains:  Are the rhizomes worth the trouble?  I need to do some digging in order to find out for myself.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Miles on 03/10/2007 at 10:49 am

    Thanks for this article Rix – this is definetely one of the most mysterious topics as far as forageable plants is concerned. Last spring I was eating the young male flowers in a big cattail swamp – but they weren’t cutting my hunger. After a while i thought that those starchy roots I’ve always heard about might help – so i reached into the muck and tickled around until i felt a lateral root (rhizome). I yanked it out – it did not look like the photo you have – it was plump and white – after peeling it it was tender, with very subtle flavor, and no tough fibre in the middle! Really comparable to the cossack’s asparagus. I ate some raw and was really excited – but haven’t tried any since and really it just confused me more. I live on vancouver island though – pretty far from you, Brill, and Gibbons – so it could be a slightly different variety.
    Miles

    Reply

  2. This rocks! Now please go add “Cattails” to the rewild.info field guide.

    Reply

  3. Miles,
    I think you got one of the root buds–the leading-edge rhizomes that are trailing off to start new plants–which do not have the fibers inside like the rhizomes that connect the colony. As far as the plumpness, there’s no telling whether it was a different Typha species or just a more healthy plant. Hopefully I can get out into the field (marsh) and do a little more research on the issue this weekend (and thereby finish part 4).

    Scout,
    I’m actually already in the process of e-priming this for the field guide.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Miles on 03/12/2007 at 9:31 am

    Root bud – that explains alot! Anyhow they are delicious,
    thanks!

    Reply

  5. Wild plant food is something that I’ve wanted to learn more about, but haven’t gotten into yet. I did experiment a little with cattails before, but wasn’t really sure what I was doing. The pictures you’ve linked to are very helpful.

    Would you agree that the rhizomes and buds are best eaten in winter when the plant’s energy is concentrated there? Not that you can’t eat them anytime, but you’re better off eating the part the plant is focusing it’s energy in according to the season.

    Reply

  6. Sassmouth,

    You make a great point: focus on eating what the plant is focusing its energy on.

    I the idea doesn’t hold true across the board, but certainly with a lot of root vegetable plants, you wouldn’t even want to try to eat the roots when the plant is focusing its energy on growing stalks and flowers. Burdock root, for instance, is great in the plants first year and the early part of the plant’s second year (it’s a biennial), but once the flower stalks start growing in the second year the roots become too woody to be palatable.

    Spring beauties, on the other hand, you’ll only find when the plant is flowering, and the corms are delicious at that time.

    Sassafras is reportedly best to harvest in winter when the energy focus is on the roots, but I’ve never noticed any taste difference not matter what time of year I dig them up.

    With cattails, from what I’ve read, the rhizomes tend to be woody and unpalatable once the plant starts growing. Reportedly though (can’t remember if it was Gibbons or Elpel) the root buds are good any time you can find them due to the fact that they are actually plant growth and not root storage. Although, whenever there are shoots and flower spikes to be had, I wouldn’t bother digging in the muck for root buds.

    Reply

  7. “I’m actually already in the process of e-priming this for the field guide.”

    You rock my friend.

    Reply

  8. Posted by salmonberrys on 03/14/2007 at 1:30 pm

    My experience was that the buds are growing during the growing season – and therefore are most tender at that time. They are worth the digging too (really it’s more just like fondling and ticking).

    Reply

  9. I never knew there was so much to know about cattails… Through my browsing around, I found this here blog and though I have nothing nutritionally substantive to add, I will say that you and Su have a mighty precious little man.

    Blessings-
    Jess (aka L.M.)

    Reply

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