Hello, my friends! Today we’re going to talk about foraging for cattails. I would be surprised if you didn’t know what cattails looked like. I think that it was one of the first wild growing plants that I could identify when I was a kid, along with dandelions and clover. Besides being easy to identify, cattails are also known as a major wild food source and an overall useful plant. Every part can be used in some helpful way, which is really awesome.
Foraging for Cattails
While many parts of the plant can be useful year round, the wonderfully tender shoots are perfect for eating in mid to late spring. We started our search by going to cattail patches that we had seen growing on the side of the road.
Last years cattails are still there, looking a little haggard, but we know that there are new shoots forming. You can see them here, they almost look like irises when they are young. Be careful of that, because irises are toxic, but if you are looking where you can see old cattails you should be ok. Cattails need a lot of water, in fact they usually grow on the edges of ponds and swamps. Here they were in a ditch on the side of the road where there was a tiny creek. Only a trickle was flowing now, but I’m sure there was more water in the winter, making this an ideal spot for foraging.
(Edit: It has been brought to my attention that cattails are a bioaccumulator, which means that they absorb toxic chemicals. So even though you don’t really need to worry about pesticides because you are only eating the inner portion of the cattail, you still don’t want to harvest them where they may have been sprayed or along a roadside where they could have taken up nasty stuff. Try to find them in a more natural, less human disturbed area, like the pond I show below).
This is what a young cattail looks like. Notice how is oval at the base, where an iris is flat at the base. To collect the shoots, grab the inner part of the plant down low and pull. It should come up fairly easily.
Cattail shoots are one foraging item that I tend to have at it with. You really don’t need to worry about collecting too much. They are extremely prolific, not only by seed, but they also spread by rhizomes (which are edible year round, but are much more difficult to collect). Plus, it’s not as if cattail shoots are highly prized or often foraged in this day and age, although they should be in my opinion!
We also knew of a large pond near town that was full of cattails, so that’s where we headed to next to see what we could find.
These were a little harder to collect as they pretty much were all in the water.
That’s ok, we just had to lean in a little to grasp them. The worst part was the mosquitos, though! Once you have all the shoots that you want to collect, it’s time to bring them home to finish processing.
How to Use Foraged Cattails
Now you need to separate the outer husk from the shoot. It’s pretty easy as it peels right off like an onion.
Peel off the layers until you get to the center core. Then cut the white tender part off from the rest of the stalk.
The bottom part is what you want to save for eating. You can even eat them raw, it tastes like cucumber! The outer leaves that you peeled off and the green tops of the shoots can be used for basket weaving and the like. These inner cores are the best for eating, though! Fermented Cattail Shoots are such a treat!
You will notice when you’re picking the shoots and peeling off the layers that there is a gelatinous substance. This is also edible and can be used for thickening soups, as well as being an analgesic and antiseptic medicinal.
The seed pod itself is also useful as it contains a large amount of fluffy material that can be used as stuffing for toys or pillows.
In a few more weeks the young seed pods of the new plants will form, and they are also edible. I’ve heard that you can eat them like corn on the cob! The young green “flowers” can also be used in recipes, like this cattail flower bread.
Soon thereafter a yellow pollen will coat the pods that is also edible and rivals the medicinal qualities of bee pollen. Just put the head into a brown paper bag and shake it to collect the pollen, which can be added to things like breads, pancakes, and even pasta!
Without a doubt the cattail is one of the most useful plants there is. From its edible shoots and rhizomes, medicinal gel and pollen, leaves for baskets and mats, to fluffy seeds for stuffing, this really is a wonder plant! I hope you’ll think differently of it next time you see a patch of them, and maybe you’ll even decide to pull one up.
Now I had to decide what I was going to do with all of my shoots. I tasted a few raw and they were delicious, I cooked a few in butter which was also amazing, but what I really wanted to do was ferment them! After tasting that strong cucumber flavor I knew they would be great as lacto fermented cattail shoots, so that’s exactly what I did!
Now go start foraging for cattails!