Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Cattail Shoots & Rhizomes/Roots
Season: Shoots: Spring. Rhizomes: Early Spring or Fall.
Urban, Rural or Both: Rural mainly - if found within cites, be cautious of water quality
An important thing to be sure of is that the water they are growing in is clean and not polluted. Cattails are intentionally grown in polluted water for the reason that they absorb a lot of the nasty chemicals and heavy metals. That's great for cleaning water, but it makes them unsafe to eat unless the water they are growing in is absolutely clean. For areas around cities, or areas of intense farming, this is very hard to find. Don't bother with the roadside ones. I use the frog test. Frogs are very sensitive to pollution of any kind. If there aren't any frogs in the water where the Cattails are growing, don't bother collecting from that area.
Shoots can be peeled and eaten raw or lightly steamed or boiled and eaten by themselves, or in with other vegetables in a stir-fry
They are easy to collect, as long as you have boots and don't get a soaker. When they are sticking about a foot out of the water, hold on to the Cattail at the water level and pull. They should just pop off the root.
Be sure it is that it is Cattail shoots you are picking. The base is an oval round shape and not flat. The taste is very mild. If what you think are Cattails are strong smelling or tasting, you do not have Cattails. They are very easy to identify when they are in flower with the classic Cattail look, but the young shoots can look like other young shoots from different aquatic plants when you are just starting out.
I have to confess, I'm not big on Cattail rhizomes. I feel as a person who eats wild foods, this is the worst thing you can say. I really like the shoots in the spring cooked like Asparagus. The problem with the roots of the Cattail is the fibrous quality. The shoots are tender and without any fibre at all, but the roots are like potatoes full of dental floss (OK, not that bad). I've tried slicing them up and frying like others suggest, but I still am not really keen on the texture. You can grind them up and filter the fibres, and use the starch - and it does taste good. It's just that it seems like a lot of work overall for what you get.
That confession aside, they are a healthy starch without any bitter or unpleasant quality at all.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
If you have the right conditions, you probably already have them. That said, you can gather the seeds (the lower of the two fuzzy sections) when ripe and spread on the water where it is shallow and still. You can also dig up whole plants, tubers and all (keep wrapped up to prevent drying out on the way home) and dig into the muck under the water.
- Plant Size: 1-3 meters (3-10 feet) high
- Duration: Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Simple, Linear with parallel veins, all growing from the base (basal leaves)
- Leaf Opposite or Alternate: Alternate
- Leaf Size: up to 3 meters (10 feet) long, 2-3 cm (3/4 to 1 1/2 inches) wide
- Leaf Margin: Entire
- Flowers: on the long, jointless stalk, near the top is the Staminate flower, below (by a few centimeters) is the Pistillate flower that looks "hot-dog" shaped that most people recognize as the "Cattail".
- Fruit: Achene on a tuft of hair that allows it to be carried in the wind when released. (The Cattail "fluff")
- Habitat: Wet areas in shallow water in full light. Ditches, marshes, swamps.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Mature Cattails in late summer.
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