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Cat-tail Pickles

Springtime on PEI provides an amazing selection of edible wild plants. From tasty greens like Dandelions, Fiddleheads, and Spruce Tips to root vegetables including Burdock, Evening Primrose, and Wild Carrot, our Island is bursting with nutritious wild foods. One of the most versatile is Cat-tail (Typha latifolia), and it’s on today’s menu (Photo 1).

Photo 1: Easy-to-make Cat-tail quick pickles.

All parts of Cat-tail are edible.  Right now, it’s the delicious new shoots (more on using these in a moment).  In early summer, Cat-tail’s green flower spikes can be cooked and eaten. Pollen from mature male flowers can be collected and used as flour. In fall, starchy Cat-tail roots can be eaten like potato or processed into flour. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular Cat-tail torch, and decorative Cat-tail flower arrangements.

 

This is an excellent ‘gateway plant’ for beginning foragers. It’s common across the Island, usually abundant where found, and easy to harvest - as long as you don’t mind getting your feet wet! There are only two things you need to be aware of.  First, don’t confuse edible Cat-tail with toxic Iris. They sometimes grow in the same habitat and look a bit alike in spring, but it’s easy to tell them apart. I show you how here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/edible-cat-tail-vs-toxic-iris-know-the-difference.

 

Second, be sure you are harvesting from a clean area. One of the important ecological roles of Cat-tail is bioaccumulation: it picks up contaminants from the environment, keeping waterways clean. Artificial wetlands planted with Cat-tails are used in wastewater treatment systems for just this reason.


Photo 2: Freshly-picked PEI Cat-tail shoots.

Once you’ve found a clean site, give Cat-tail shoots a try! Grab the shoots as close to the ground as you can and tug them out (Photo 2). To prepare, just peel away the dirty outer layers until you are left with something that looks like a leek.


Photo 3: Treat cleaned Cat-tail shoots as you would a leek and cut off the lower white and light green parts for use.

When your Cat-tail shoots are peeled and cleaned, cut off the lower white and light green parts for eating (Photo 3). They smell and taste like cucumber and can be eaten raw, tossed into a stir fry, sautéed with butter and garlic, or pickled.


Photo 4: My ingredients for this batch of quick pickles, but I like to vary the spices for each batch.

To make pickles, you’ll need Cat-tails, vinegar, water, pickling salt, pickling spices to suit your taste, and something to hold the Cat-tails down in the jar (such as lemon, onion, or large garlic cloves). For this batch, I used garlic, pickling spice, and red pepper flakes (Photo 4), but you could use allspice, anise, caraway, cayenne, celery seed, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, peppercorns, smoked paprika, or anything else that inspires you!

 

Use your regular pickling brine or combine one cup vinegar, one cup water, and one tablespoon pickling salt and bring to a boil (increase volumes proportionally as needed). Add one or two teaspoons of your spices to the bottom of a sterilized jar and then pack in your Cat-tail shoots. Pour hot brine into the jar, leaving a bit of headspace. The Cat-tail shoots will float in the brine, so you need to either pack them in very tightly to prevent that or put some lemon, onion, garlic, or other complimentary weight on top to hold them under the brine.  Cap the jar, and you’re done!  These are quick pickles and so need to be stored in the refrigerator. You can give them a try after a couple of days, and they’ll keep for up to a month.

 

Like so many of our wild foods, the Cat-tail shoot season is short. Now is the time to enjoy this part of PEI untamed!

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