Yesterday afternoon, as I led a group of students around the farm, I saw my first red-winged black bird of the season. Throughout winter I enjoy the bluejays, cardinals and robins: Their bright colors against the snow as they eat the berries from one of the trees just outside our kitchen window is cheering. The feeling is quite different to see my first soaring red-winged blackbird when the weather finally breaks.
For years, I only saw these birds from a moving car as they congregated in marshy fields and ditches. Just a couple years ago, our pond matured enough to begin to grow cattails (Typha latifolia), and suddenly we had red-winged blackbirds of our very own. While swimming in the pond one summer afternoon, I discovered why this was. This curious bird builds its nest on the strong stalks of the cattail just above the water level. Genius! In order for a predator to get at its babies, it either has to fly in and land with precision or swim out into the middle of the pond. This time of year I enjoy sitting on the rocks for hours to watch the females building their reed baskets just before they settle in and lay eggs.
The birds and I have a similar love: cattails. Too many folks see these fuzzy-tipped plants as a nuisance. They pour chemicals into their pond to eradicate them. My father warned me that once the cattails start they will inevitably choke your water source. This is mostly true of the introduced cattail species (Typha angustifolia). Unmanaged, that is exactly what they’ll do. Their rhizomes will quickly spread and cover a wet area, sucking up the water and creating marsh where once there was open water.
The answer is to manage their growth—we don’t have to use chemicals, though! Instead we can freely eat them. The rhizomes are edible and delicious. They can be pounded down to produce a starchy flour. We can peel and eat the underwater corms, as well, as the interior portion of the stalks. They are delicious both raw in a salad and sautéed as you would asparagus. The pollen can be collected and used as part of the flour in flat breads, such as pancakes or crackers. We can even eat the fuzzy seed heads, though they’re destined for the pan long before they become fuzzy. It is important to understand that one of the great benefits of our native cattail is to filter lead out of contaminated areas. This means that the location of your foraging matters. Our pond is a safe place for us to collect this abundant food source, but I would avoid cattail stands in industrial areas or along busy roads.
Of course, being who I am, I can’t leave you without talking a bit about the medicinal uses of this fabulous weed. To be honest, there aren’t a lot. The ground up rhizome can be poulticed over cuts and bruises with a bit of success. If you were in need of an antiseptic while out in the wild and had nothing else close to hand you could make a small cut at the base of the plant just above the water line. The plant will bleed a thick, semi-clear liquid that can be used to protect a wound from infection.
Our family has offered a peeled stalk to our more adventurous visitors on farm tours. The flavor is reminiscent of a mild water chestnut. I’ve been meaning to try the rest of the plant in some of my favorite dishes. This year, we’ve watched for the ice to clear with anticipation. We’ll be eating each part of the plant in season because we need to clear some areas of cattail anyway. I love it when I can eat my problems!