This is the start of a series that will appear over the next few weeks and months which will chronicle our journey in learning how to forage and harvest wild edibles. We’ve been candid in sharing that this has been a long-time goal with many frustrations that we’re now finding significant success with. We hope these posts will inspire you to learn more about foraging and exploring if it has a role in your kitchen but we need to make it clear that we are not experts. We rely on professional resources like this app from Steve Brill, books like those written by Tama Matsuoka Wong or websites and books by people like Hank Shaw. If you’re considering this journey, it’s important you use the advise of pros like these to ensure your safety – there’s no meal in the world that’s worth sickness or death.
Cattail are one of the easiest edibles to find in the wild; just look for last years stalks which often stand 6-9 feet tall and have the wispy remains of last years flowers standing tall like flags. The trickiest thing about cattail is knowing when to harvest them and which parts you’ll want to use.
A few words of caution when harvesting cattail:
- Don’t pick from the side of the road where there’s lots of runoff, grease and other pollution.
- Examine the lay of the land – a pond that’s 50 feet from the road is just as likely to be polluted if all 50 feet are a steep decline – or if the water source is contaminated.
- Cattail appear on the shore of bodies of water – picking after a few dry days will make them the easiest to harvest and keep your feet dry.
- Cattail can be mistaken with yellow irises which are poison – be sure you have positive identification before setting in to harvest them.
As the plant reaches 2-3 feet tall in the early spring, you’ll find some of the most exciting eating (we’ll share how to eat other parts as the plants mature later in the year). Think of them as overgrown leeks at this point – although the flavor is much more of a cross between a zuchini and a cucumber. They are a great source of starch (you can actually make a flour from them that, time allowing, we’ll be exploring later in the year).
It’s simple to harvest the plant – grasp with both hands and pull upwards (you don’t need to jerk them) – most will break cleanly from the root and look like this:
The roots (which are also edible and you can harvest later in the year) stay in place and will generally grow another stalk in the following year.
You’ll notice, very quickly, that your hands get covered in slippery goo (this is also usable though I don’t know enough about that yet).
The thinner stalks are eaten like leeks (avoid the fibrous green stuff) while the thicker ones will have a heart (almost like an artichoke heart) which can be prepared with gentle steaming. They can be eaten raw (although can have some of that slime), lightly steamed, blanched or even fried. We’ll share a recipe later this week for what we did with these!
Have you eaten cattail before (if so, what was your favourite way)? Would you try it? If you’re looking for a recipe, check out this recipe featuring cattail!