Typha Latifolia: Anyone for Eating Cattails?

Don't let high food prices get you down. Try cooking with Typha latifolia, aka common cattail, to eat like a king.

| May/June 1978

  • Eating Cattail
    Cattail is an incredibly versatile food that can be used in many ways.

  • Eating Cattail

At one time or another, you've probably noticed cattails sprouting up like exclamation points in nearby streams and/or marshes. You may even have picked some of these distinctive aquatic weeds to use in dried floral arrangements. Unless you're a "wild foods" aficionado, however, you may never have eaten (or even heard of) cattail corn, Cossack asparagus, or reed mace flour . . . and you may not have known that the common cattail — Typha latifolia — was prized as a food and fiber plant by both ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilizations.

Eating Cattails

Few people seem to be aware of it, but the common cattail is actually a highly nutritious and astonishingly versatile source of food. Its stems can be prepared as a vegetable, the pollen can be used in bread recipes, the plant's distinctive flower spikes can be cooked like corn, the bulbous shoots at the base of the stem are delicious when boiled, even the cattail's roots can be processed into a rich (and highly palatable) flour. (Euell Gibbons was probably right when he wrote: "For the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common cattail.")

What makes Typha latifolia a particularly valuable wild food resource, however, is the fact that — unlike many other "forageables" — the cattail [1] grows throughout the U.S. and [2] cannot be mistaken for another plant (or vice versa). Even the novice forager can easily recognize the cattail's slender stalks and distinctive, cigar-shaped flower spikes.

While it's true that reed mace (as Typha latifolia is sometimes called) can be harvested year round, the delicacy known worldwide as Cossack asparagus is best prepared from two-to-three-foot-long shoots gathered in early spring. Simply grab the young plant(s) near the water level and pull. You'll find that you've liberated a section of stem about a foot in length (and left the plant's roots in the ground). Now, if you'll peel back a few layers of "skin" from this stem, you'll soon come to a pale-greenish "core" that can be cooked and eaten just like asparagus. (The dish is absolutely delicious . . . and so much less expensive than "real" asparagus!)

Other Uses for the Common Cattail

With the arrival of early summer comes another taste treat: cattail corn. To prepare this part of the common cattail, pick the plant's seed heads when they're still in the sheath. Husk off the sheaths, boil the bud-studded heads as you would fresh corn-on-the-cob, then — just before serving — dip the heads in melted butter. You'll find that the flavor is very similar to that of the roasting ears to which the reed mace heads are very closely related.

Eventually, the hot days of summer bring yellow pollen to the cattail's flower spikes — pollen that can easily be shaken off into a jar, combined half and half with ordinary wheat flour, and used to make delicious muffins, pancakes, waffles, and other bread items. (Breads made with cattail pollen, you'll find, are not only economical and good-tasting, but eye-pleasing, too; the powder adds a warm, yellow color to baked goods.)

Russ Cohen_3
2/28/2010 7:57:05 AM

For those of you that live in or are visiting New England and would like to learn more about the comestible qualities of other wild plants and mushrooms, you're welcome to take part in one of my public foraging programs. Here's a link to my schedule: http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/sched.htm -- Russ Cohen http://users.rcn.com/eatwild/bio.htm

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