You may have seen cattails’ tall green shoots poking out of a wetland, or glimpsed its distinctive brown seed heads while swimming in a lake. But, did you know that they are also highly edible?
From roots to shoots, different parts of the plant can be ground into flour, sautéed, or eaten raw as a canoe-side snack. In fact, Backwoods Home magazine has declared the cattail “a virtual gold mine of survival utility.” With an endorsement like that, we had to try it for ourselves!
We took it to our testers at Oceana High School in Pacifica, where the Parks Conservancy and National Park Service have a long-standing nursery program that engages students in hands-on park stewardship work. On a recent afternoon at Oceana High, Price Sheppy (the Conservancy’s San Mateo County Community Programs Manager) and I headed to the kitchen to experiment.
There are a few different parts of the plant that can be eaten. Cattails basically look like giant leeks or green onions, with a long green shoot, a white stalk, and an underground rhizome off which new shoots grow.
The underground rhizome produces a starch that can be used as a versatile flour. You can wash the rhizomes, peel the outer layer off, then break them up under water. The fibers and starch will begin to separate, and you can collect the starch. Because it contains gluten, it will react with yeast in a bread and allow the bread to rise. We didn’t try this in our experiment, since we didn’t have quite enough time to extract the flour and bake bread. But, it will definitely be part of future endeavors!
On the rhizome, you may find the beginnings of new white shoots. These corms (we sometimes call them alligator teeth) are usually about half an inch in diameter and a few inches long. They’re soft enough to be eaten raw—just peel the outer layer off and you have a little snack. They don’t have a whole lot of flavor, but if you’re carrying hot sauce in your canoe, you can create a pretty tasty nibble.
The third edible part, and my personal favorite, is the inner shoot. You can remove the green outer layers of the shoot to find the spongy inner white shoot, then eat it raw if you’re not near a heat source. If you do have access to a kitchen, it can be cooked. You can wash it, chop it, and sauté it, then eat it on its own or add it to a dish. At Oceana, we chopped our inner shoots, sautéed them in olive oil and soy sauce, and then added it to rice.
This food experiment proved more successful than our soaproot cooking, and our professional taste-testers at Oceana approved! The dish of rice and sautéed inner shoots, especially, went quickly. One student even compared it to Chinese food (which can probably be attributed to our use of soy sauce)—but I’ll take it!
We’ve got more edible and useful natives up our sleeves, so drop by our Park Stewardship programs if you want to learn more!
By Allison Gramolini
Park Stewardship Intern