Common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow leaf cattail (Typha augustifolia) are easy to identify and easy to eat wild edibles, and produce some of our favorite edibles--pollen, the early "hearts", and the flower spike pulp. Cattails grow in open marshy areas, along slow moving rivers, in some tidal marshes, and shallow ponds. They prefer full sun and mucky ground. The sword-like leaves grow from the base of the rhizome beneath the mud, to about 4-8' tall. A very early shoot is edible, gathered by cutting it from the rhizome. The heart of the leaves is edible in early spring before the flower stalks grow. The flower stalk is produced from the center of each leaf cluster, and it contains both the male and female flower parts. The immature flower stalk can be collected to cook and eat like corn-on-the-cob. As it's protective leaf unfurls, the upper male flower produces the pollen that will fertilize the lower female part which will develop into the brown, hot dog-on-a-stick seed head most people are familiar with. The dried hot dog makes great tinder for fires. Late in the autumn through winter and in very early spring, the rhizome can be gathered and processed as a source of starch.
The excessive rain this spring has prevented us from gathering the hearts. Either it is raining too much all day, or all the extra rain yesterday flooded the swamp and we can't reach the cattails because of the high water. All we own are knee-high rubber boots, perhaps a purchase of chest-high waders is in our future. The hearts are gathered by grabbing the outer leaves of each leaf cluster, and pulling them away from the center. Then we firmly grasp the center leaves and give it a pull, and it releases easily from the rhizome. The lower 4-6 inches of the leaves are white and very tender with a taste similar to cucumber. They are easily added to salads and pickled, but Gillian like them best raw. We'll have to wait until next year to get more.
Gillian holding unpeeled flower stalks
Already the flower stalks are up, and we have been able to cut some and bring them home. The protective leaf is peeled, and we boil up the male and female flower parts like corn. The female part is usually lighter green, and does not produce much food, but the darker male part produces an abundant pulp. We also remove this pulp raw and use it in recipes like chowder and griddle cakes. The taste is similar to corn.
If the flowers are allowed to mature, the male parts produce large amounts of pollen. We gather the pollen by using a gallon jug with a hole cut into the side. Robert bends the pollen-laden flower stalk into the hole, and shakes it around. The plastic jug holds most of the pollen inside, although some always escapes and Robert comes home covered in yellow dust. Then we sift the pollen once in a metal sieve to remove debris, then again through a tea strainer to remove bugs and flower bits. The pollen is then spread out on a sheetpan and left to dry, and we store it in the freezer in a glass jar. We add the pollen as a nutritional and flavor boost to pancakes, biscuits, and in yogurt and oatmeal all year.
Cattail Pollen pancakes with wild strawberry compote
We have not tried gathering the rhizomes to make a starch, but may try it later this fall. We read about digging the rhizomes from the mud and peeling them to expose the center core. Then the cores are pulled apart and washed with water to separate the starch from the tough fibers. The water is allowed to sit, as the starch will settle to the bottom and can be dried for use like flour. Samuel Thayer gives a great description in his book "The Forager's Harvest" of how to process flour from cattail rhizomes. We also recorded Blanche Derby talking about cattails in a video.