Teresa is from the Southern state of Alabama. Raising a large family on a small budget, she's learned to cook delicious food efficiently.
What Is Foraging?
Foraging is a way to reconnect with nature by searching for wild food resources like medicinal herbs and edible plants. By foraging for foods and medicines, we utilize our renewable resources, learn deeper respect for nature, and lessen the impact on our financial resources.
In this article, I will be sharing information on how to correctly identify and forage for cattails, as well as how to properly prepare and cook them.
The Highly Versatile Cattail
Cattails are also known as punks in North America, bull rush, and reed mace in England.
The plants are very versatile. The rushes or leaves are used to weave and make roofing and furniture. The down can be used to line diapers, pillows, and vests. In fact, the down was used in WWII to fill the pilots' vests and kept their buoyant properties, even when immersed 100 times or more.
Identifying the Plant
The leaves of the cattail are flat, on long rushes. The head of the cattail resembles a corn dog. When the head ripens, the interior is filled with a cotton-like fiber that contains the seeds. The fluff around the seeds is very useful to make poultices and absorb moisture.
How to Harvest Cattails
All parts of the plant are useful, so it can be harvested from the root upwards. Just make sure you are gathering the plants from a non-polluted site. After all, these are being gathered for food.
If you are gathering the young shoots in the spring, you will need to be able to identify the cattail shoots from other water plants that share the waterline. Some wild irises look very similar to cattails. Irises are very poisonous if eaten, however, so be sure to do your research and stay safe.
Gathering and Preparing the Shoots
Grab ahold of the part of the plant that is close to the ground. Wiggle it in circles and back and forth to loosen it. Then gently pull on the plant. If it doesn't come up easily, then try digging the dirt away from the plant a little and try to pull it up again.
- Once the shoots are up, shake and wash off as much of the dirt as you can on the location.
- Cut the roots and replant them in the area you pulled them from.
- Then remove the outer leaves until you get to the white core.
- Wash the shoots well to remove any remaining dirt and sand.
Cattail Soup Recipe
Cattail shoots can be used as an edible green. It has a spicy flavor even though the texture is somewhat tough.
- 1 cup cattail shoots, chopped
- ½ cup onions, chopped
- 2 large potatoes, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a large stockpot, add cattail, salt, and pepper. Cover with water.
- Bring this to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer.
- Simmer for 30 minutes. Make sure that cattails remain covered with water.
- Add onions, potatoes, and more water (covering 2 inches from all vegetables).
- Bring this to a boil.
- Then turn the heat down to low and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve hot with fry bread.
How Other Parts of the Plant Can Be Prepared
The rhizomes can be processed into flour. The heads can be steamed and taste like corn. The heart can be peeled and eaten like an artichoke, boiled or raw.
In Europe, they are a delicacy served in the spring and called a "Cossack artichoke." The leaves can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, or cooked like spinach.
In addition to being a high-protein food, cattails can be used to speed wound healing, prevent infections as an antiseptic, slow bleeding when applied as a poultice, and relieve pain.
The gel-like substance between the young leaves is an antiseptic used to treat wounds and bruising.
The boiled roots can remove arsenic from drinking water. They can also be smashed and used in a poultice to soothe the skin and decrease inflammation.
How Can Foraging Be Used in Contemporary Life?
Now that you know how to forage and prepare cattails, the next step is to begin searching for these plants in the wild so that you can identify and gather them for sampling.
It is not my suggestion, however, that you cease purchasing groceries at the local market and start foraging for all of your food needs.
There are many reasons that people forage for food, but I will focus on the ever-increasing costs of food products.
In the past five years, fresh vegetables increased 56%, fresh fruits 39%, eggs 33%, pork 19%, beef 10%, and dairy went up 10%. Food inflation will continue as long as the economy is weak.
Several investors like Warren Buffet are suggesting investing in agricultural products because of the increasing population and decreasing supply of farmers.
As unemployment continues, or underemployment, and with 40 million Americans on food stamps, the government is paying out more money in benefits than it is collecting. At some point, people will need to find a different source to feed them.
If you know basic herbs and plants, you will be ahead of those that are still seeking canned goods from an overpriced food supply. When those foodstuffs run out, you will know a good source of sustainable foods to help you get by on less money.
Foraging is not just for times of crisis or national food shortages. It is an excellent way to augment your diet so that you have an abundance of vitamins and minerals to aid your digestion and prevent diseases and disorders.
Some forageable foods will stop the spread of or help prevent cancer, manage blood sugars, enhance kidney and liver functions, aid eyesight, eliminate signs of aging, regrow thinning hair, and help with blood circulation. The nutritional aspects of these foods are such enhancements that everyone should be adding them to the dinner table.
Foraging for your foods and medicines will give you an advantage over costly supermarket shoppers and commercially prepared pharmaceuticals. Some of these medicines have been documented as effective for more than 12,000 years. It is no wonder our ancestors survived and thrived when eating these naturally healthy and tasty foods.
It's Always Smarter to Be Too Cautious Rather Than Too Eager
While you gather your salad greens, teas for infusion, and flowers for salads and teas, pay special attention to the inedible parts of the plants. Some of these plants have deliciously edible parts and some carry toxins, even cyanide in their stems. It is always smarter to be too cautious than too eager. It would also be wise to use rubber gloves for gathering, just in case you find yourself allergic to the pollen or juice of the stems.
Wash your gathered herbs and plants thoroughly. It is even suggested that you wash once in salted water to kill any bugs, then once in vinegar water to kill bacteria, then once in cold water to eliminate all traces of vinegar and salt. Washing three times may be tedious, but it will also be thorough.
If you have severe food allergies or allergies to pollen and plants, then taste these foods warily. Try just a little at a time, to see your body's reaction. Just like any other new substance you have introduced to your immune and digestive system, a natural plant can cause an allergic reaction just like a commercially grown supermarket variety.
If you are unsure about the identification of a plant, start by buying it at the Whole Foods store to get a really close look at the herb or plant first.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.