As I walked past a part of the little creek that flows by my house, I saw two lonely cattails growing on the bank. I 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.
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.
I 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.
Since 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.
While 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.
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 ~