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Cattails can be distinguished from a few other inedible species by looking for their mature brown cobs. The mature stalk has the brown cob at the top with a pollen off-shoot that typically dries and withers. New Cattail stalks are green and slender with a sword-like shape. The long green stalk is straight and sturdy and oval at the base. Peeling away the layers of leaves from the top down reveals the ‘heart’ of the stalk, which offers a tender texture. The shoot isn’t fibrous and can be pierced through with a fingernail. The flavor is mild and has notes of cucumbers and zucchini. The best time to gather Cattails stalks is in the spring before they begin to flower. In the fall, the roots are unearthed and a starch can be harvested.
Cattails can be found in the late winter and early spring months and can be foraged through the fall.
Botanically known as Typha tatifloia, Cattails are considered to be one of the most important and common of all the wild foods. The easy-to-spot Cattails can be found near wetlands, marches, and ponds, the tell-tale brown, cigar-shaped seed heads poking up amongst the new growth. Cattails have a multitude of applications, from thickening soups to fiber for making baskets.
Cattails are nutrient-rich, containing beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. Cattail flour can cause discomfort for those individuals with a gluten-intolerance, and should be avoided by people with Celiac disease.
Young Cattail stalks are used as a vegetable and can be cut into bite-sized pieces and sautéed with oil and garlic. After peeling away the outer leaves, the stalk can be cut and added to green salads. The mild flavor pairs well with mustard greens or other bitter greens. Mix the prepared stalks with milk, cheese and flour to make a scalloped Cattail dish. Cattail roots produce a high amount of edible starch, which can be used to thicken soups and stews or used in addition to other flours to make pancakes or breads. The root is broken up in water and left to soak, allowing the starch to settle at the bottom of the bowl. Pour off the liquid and allow the starch to dry in the open or in the sun.
The Native Americans used the jelly-like substance from between the leaves of the young Cattail shoots as a topical treatment for wounds, sores, and external inflammations to relieve pain.
Cattails date back to the prehistoric era when dinosaurs still walked the earth and archaeologists have found 10,000-year-old mats made from Cattails in a Nevada cave. Cattails are native to both North America and Europe, where they are referred to as bulrushes or greater reed mace. They were first mentioned in writing in the US in the 1830s when Cattails were only found along the Atlantic coast and on portions of the Gulf of Mexico. Today, there are two varieties of Cattail that likely resulted from a hybridizing of the European variety (which has all but disappeared).
Recipes that include Cattail. One is easiest, three is harder.