Cattails

Wild Edibles With Deep Roots

Jeannie Seabrook pulls on her muck boots, grabs her garden pruners, and heads to the nearby pond where cattail shoots recently emerged along the water’s edge.

“We grew up on a farm and regularly went out to the cattails along the pond,” says Jeannie, owner of Glass Rooster Cannery in Sunbury, which is located northeast of Columbus. “The cattails were just fun, and as kids we did lots of experimenting.” She recalls how they wove mats from the leaves, chewed on the raw stalks, and played with the billowy fluff of the cigar-shaped flowers that inspired their name.

This morning, she tugs on several stalks to fill her bucket. Once she’s gathered a couple dozen, she pulls one and strips away the leaves to reveal an 8-inch green shoot. She cuts off a fresh, bitesized piece to enjoy as she lists her favorite edible uses for the plant.

“You can use pretty much the whole plant,” Jeannie says. “Shoots have the most appeal and can be eaten raw like asparagus or cooked in soup and stir fry.”

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Foragers consume the pollen and flower spikes, she says. The pollen is dried and used as a flour to thicken soups and sauces. The immature male flower spikes are boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. The roots are also edible, but they’re not Jeannie’s favorite.

“They can taste gamey, since it’s difficult get rid of the taste of pond,” Jeannie says. “The key is to remove the outer peel before use.”

At Glass Rooster Cannery, Jeannie preserves an assortment of garden produce and teaches various culinary classes, including one on wild edibles.

“When we started the business eight years ago, we began to really explore teaching people about wild edibles, and cattails were one of the things on our list,” Jeannie says. “If you’re interested in wild edibles, they’re easy to [identify] and they’re safe,” unlike the harder-to-identify mushrooms with their poisonous clones. “Plus, they’re just fun.”

Cattails also are a good source of carbohydrates and fiber, plus they contain vitamins A, B, C, potassium, and phosphorus. Ancient civilizations recognized their nutritional value. “My research shows pollen was found on grinding stones in Europe,” Jeannie adds.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas, written records of cattails as a food source date to the 1600s, and cattails were found in caves in Ohio dating 800–1400 A.D. First Nations ground them into a meal, and early colonists used them for food. Pioneers found them in every state as they crossed the country and welcomed the early spring food source when other food options were slim.

Like early pioneers, Jeannie and her family still collect them wild.

“All you need is a pond or a foot and a half of water,” says Jeannie. “I suggest you get them right from a pond’s edge. You can get them without getting your feet wet. The key is to get them early enough that they’re still tender. Around here we start to see them pop out in May.”

Later in the summer, the shoots are too tough to enjoy, but the flowers are ready to gather for floral arrangements or fire-starters. If using in flower arrangements, Jeannie recommends spraying them with hairspray to prevent the fluffy seed heads from falling apart.

The edible roots can be gathered year-round. Take care peeling away the root’s outer layer, Jeannie says. “If you miss a piece, it tends to taste like the pond, so be very thorough.” The root can be used like a potato, either sliced and fried, or dried and ground as a thickener for soups and sauces.

Three types of cattails grow in Ohio. The increasingly rare broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia) is native to the state. It provides a favorable habitat for red-winged blackbirds as well as other marsh birds, muskrats, and wetland wildlife. Two other varieties—a narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia) from Europe and a hybrid cattail (Typha x glauca)—are aggressively spreading among the state’s marshes, wet meadows, lakes, ponds, and roadside ditches. These vigorous varieties have become so dominant, they are now listed on the state’s invasive plants list and prohibited from sale or distribution.

To grow cattails, broadleaf cattails are the best option. They can be planted along the shallow edges of a backyard pond or in a low-lying area, water garden, or container.

For information about Glass Rooster Cannery’s canning food and cooking classes, visit GlassRoosterCannery.com or call 614.499.2958.