The cattail swamp is a place we look out upon but rarely venture into, like the highest mountains or the deepest sea. The reasons to dive deep or climb high are clear to some of us: adventure, solitude, challenge. But why bother mucking out into the swamp?
Cattails offer lots and lots of food. Really good food.
I often hear cattail referred to as a “survival food”—as if it were something you’d only appreciate on death’s door on a desert island. I strongly disagree. I know a dud when I taste one. There are many wild foods that I put unapologetically in the “survival” category and don’t waste my time trying to make them good to eat at home. I’ve never wasted any time trying to make cattail good—it just comes that way.
Cattails offer three vegetables portions, one starchy rhizome, and nutrient-packed pollen all in one plant. The hearts are mild and juicy, with a crunch as good as any cucumber. The spikes satisfy with a flavor akin to artichoke in the form of a tiny corncob lookalike. The laterals are a joy both raw or cooked with sweet flavor and texture close to sunchoke. The pollen has little flavor but is full of nutrition and will turn your bleak pasta dough into bright, sunshiny noodles. The rhizomes yield a gluten-free flour that adds depth and texture to your baked goods, or a hearty thickener for soups and stews. All of these parts are easy and versatile in the kitchen, and once you try some basic preparations, you’ll see the possibilities are vast.
Species of Cattails
There are four species of cattails currently found in the U.S.: Typha latifolia (Broad-leaved cattail), our most common native species; Typha angustifolia (Narrow-leaved cattail) are thought to be non-native but this is disputed by a handful of researchers; Typha glauca, a hybrid of T. latifolia and T. angustifolia, is quickly becoming a contender for most common because of its hybrid vigor; Typha domingensis (Southern cattail) historically occurs only in Florida and Texas.
All four species share the fan of long, sword-shaped leaves and a tall stalk with a brown, cigar-shaped flower full of fluffy seeds, a familiar emblem of the wetlands. Due to hybridization, telling these species apart is a botanist’s nightmare. For the forager it’s simple: you can use them all the same way.
Where to Find Cattails
If you don’t know where to find cattails, you probably haven’t spent nearly enough time outside. They grow in still or slow-moving freshwater, but it’s important to look for cleaner water. Cattails are very effective bio–accumulators, so effective that people plant them in polluted waterways as a bioremediation tool. It’s a real bummer to find a perfect stand of cattails just growing there, looking like it’s been waiting for you, only to learn it’s probably loaded to the gills with pesticides or some other unsavory substance downstream of a city or agricultural area. Be prepared for that heartache, but then go upstream.
Know the Lookalikes
There are two plants that can be confused with cattail but the key differences are easy to spot. One is the wild iris, which is toxic, and the other is sweet flag, which is delicious. Iris has similarly–shaped leaves, but the base of the plant’s stalk is flat and narrow while the cattail is round. Sweet Flag also has a spike–shaped flower but it emerges at an angle about halfway up the plant while cattail flowers are born at the very top of the stalk and point straight up. Sweet flag has a spicy, sweet smell while cattail has no notable fragrance. They are most easily confused in the spring. If you’re unsure, wait for flowering or send photos to an expert.
How to Harvest Cattails
Ok, so you know where to look and what you’re looking for—now when? Here’s a rough timeline, but it’s infinitely variable based on geography and requires a lot of watching, then hurrying up and waiting.
As soon as the mud is thawed you can dig in and access the rhizomes, the horizontal roots that grow a few inches below the surface. Spring and fall are best for rhizomes because they’ll be highest in starch (which is what you’re after). I’ve read many comparisons of rhizomes to potatoes over the years. However, I and many others with a lot more experience than me, have determined this is the product of writers parroting a misinterpretation of what one writer said one time. Spare yourself the disappointment and just love it for what it is: starch. There are a number of methods for extracting the starch. I prefer the “dry method” from Samuel Thayer’s book, “The Forager’s Harvest”. You start by peeling the spongy layer off of the core. If you look at the cut end of the rhizome you can see the distinct layers, and you can feel the difference in texture with your thumbnail. Both layers should be creamy in color. If they’ve started to turn orange or brown then they’re not worth using. The peeling can be tedious at first but once you get the hang of it you can cruise. It’s worth watching some videos online to see someone do it well. Once all of your cores are peeled, you’ll cut them into sections about 1/3-inch long. You’ll then need to dry them completely, which usually takes two to four days on a drying rack. I’ve never used an electric dehydrator but I’m sure that would cut your time down quite a bit. When the cores are fully dry, you’ll grind them in a flour or grain mill into a bowl. The mill won’t grind up the stringy fibers, so you’ll have to sift everything through a jelly bag or something equally fine to get your finished product. After an admittedly laborious process, you’re left with a beautiful, dry “flour” that can be included in almost any recipe that calls for flour. The rest of the cattail requires much less work to get from swamp to mouth, but starch is a valuable thing in the foraged food world and worth a little elbow grease.
Late Spring to Early Summer
When the plant reaches about half of its full height and the flower stalk has not yet formed, you can collect the hearts—tender white inner layers of the leaf bases. To harvest cattail hearts, I grab the tops of all but the two of the outer leaves on each side and slowly pull straight up. You should hear a squeak and the heart will come out looking just like a leek. It’ll save you a lot of fuss to keep them clean, so bring a clean bag or basket. When you get home, trim off the green tops and give the hearts a good rinse. They have a little slime that you’ll want to wipe away, then peel the greener layers to get at the white core. I prefer them raw or only lightly cooked because they have such a nice crunch. But, there are folks who report an itchy throat from eating them raw. I don’t know what causes the itchy throat, and I’ve never heard of any other ill effects, but as with any new food, try a small bite first and wait awhile to see how your body gets along with it. I also love cattail hearts pickled or sliced thin on salads, sandwiches, soups, or sushi. If I do cook them, I prefer something like a hot and fast stir-fry in a wok to keep a little crunch.
Early summer provides the spikes (my personal favorite) and pollen. I have a fat-tooth for oil-rich plants like avocados and olives, so I am always looking for ways to scratch that itch on my own landscape. Aside from nuts, cattail spikes satisfy this better than anything I’ve found here in Maine. They contain carbs, proteins, and lipids which would explain my satisfaction (though it could also be the butter I drown them in).
In the weeks following your cattail heart harvest, you’ll see the flower stalk rise from the center of the leaves. At the top of this stalk will swell two flowers, one on top of the other, like two hot dogs pushed onto a skewer. The bottom flower is the female that will mature into the brown cigar that we are familiar with seeing all winter. The top flower or “spike” is the male. If you’re craving corn–on–the–cob but it won’t be ripe for weeks, the “spikes” are an answered prayer. Pick them while they are firm and green and ideally still wrapped in their leafy husk. Find the gap between the two flowers and snap the spike off with your fingers. Grill or boil them like corn. Simmer in salted water for five minutes, then another five minutes in melted butter, finish with a squeeze of lemon and you’ll never look at a swamp the same again.
Alongside the spikes and continuing a few weeks afterwards comes pollen. A spike will mature from green to lumpy brown to dusty yellow within a week. Not all plants in a swamp will mature at the same time, so you’ll have overlapping harvest windows. Most people collect the pollen by shaking the yellow spikes into a container. This gives a stunning, refined product but takes a long time to harvest any quantity. For a bulkier, less refined pollen harvest, some people seek the brown/yellow lumpy stage and strip that flower material off the spike. I do both and use both differently. The shaken pollen makes the most sunshiny pasta dough you could ever dream of. The stripped pollen flowers add chewy golden texture to baked goods.
Late Summer to Fall
When the plant is done flowering, it puts its energy underground and sends out “laterals” or the rhizomes’ new growth. Follow a mature rhizome with your hand in the mud until you feel a new shoot coming out. If this shoot ends in a horizontal point and does not turn upwards, you have a lateral. Easily snap it away from the mature rhizome with your fingers. You can crunch on raw laterals right there in the swamp or at home in salads, slaws, etc. You can cook as a root vegetable ( I did not say “potato,” just “root vegetable,” which it is). You can collect good quantities of laterals in short time and they store well. Don’t go home emptyhanded this fall on days when the ducks don’t fly your way!
Tools of the Trade
Before you head out, let me suggest a few tools. One of my favorite things about collecting cattails is that your hands will often be your primary tool, but most times you’ll also want tall boots or waders and a clean basket or bag.
For harvesting rhizomes you’ll want a knife that you don’t mind getting dirty, and a bag or basket big enough to carry your rhizome sections without bending them. I prefer a foragers’ pack basket for collecting rhizomes, hearts, and spikes because it leaves both hands free and I can just gently drop the harvested pieces over my shoulder into the pack. A blicky or some kind of small bucket strapped to my waist works well too, but you can’t walk through a thick stand as nimbly. To collect pollen the shaken way, the most common vessel is a clean, dry gallon jug with a 2-inch hole cut in the side. I used to hold the jug upright by the handle and cut the hole in the opposite side and this worked fine for years. This year, however, I learned that if you use the jug upside-down (with the lid on) you retain more pollen and it’s like a built-in funnel when it’s time to empty your jug. I’m sure other foragers out there have rigged up some cool cattail equipment, but I’m usually satisfied with waders, a pack basket, and my own two hands.
Fun fact: Eastern indigenous hunters used to weave floating waterfowl decoys out of cattail leaves. Maybe that’s a good use of time on slow days in the duck blind?
I’ve eaten lots of delicate greens and flowers and cherished every one, but the cattail provides not just a nice flavor in your mouth but a weight in your belly. Humans all over the world have used cattails for food, shelter, and function for at least 30,000 years. That’s enough evidence for me that a swamp is a place worth knowing, and a cattail is worth the effort.
If you want to learn more about foraged and survival foods, please pre-order our upcoming book, “The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival,” available in December, 2020.
Images by Jenna Rozelle.