Early Spring Greens: Cucumber-y Cat-tails
Springtime on PEI provides an amazing selection of edible wild plants. If you’re out enjoying our freshwater wetlands (or maybe foraging for fiddleheads), you’ll likely encounter this tasty, native plant: Cat-tail (Typha latifolia). It’s known locally as Bulrush, although technically those are different plants (Schoenoplectus spp.).
Cat-tail is both ecologically important and culinarily useful. Every part of the plant is edible at some point in the year. Right now, Cat-tail shoots are the perfect size for harvesting (Photo 1).
Cat-tail 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 cautions. First, be sure you are harvesting from a clean area. One of the important ecological roles of Cat-tail is as a bioaccumlator: 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. Second, be sure you don't have any toxic Blue-flag Iris (Iris versicolor) mixed in with your harvest. I'll make a separate post specifically on this next week.
Once you’ve found a clean spot, harvesting Cat-tails couldn’t be easier. Grab the base of a shoot and give it a tug. It will pull out, looking a bit like a leek with its white bottom (Photo 2).
To prepare, just peel away the outer layers, which will be a bit spongy at the bottom as well as dirty. As you do this, you’ll feel a slimy substance between the layers. This is mucilage, and is an effective treatment for minor cuts, burns, insect bites and toothaches.
Once your Cat-tail shoots are peeled and cleaned, cut off the lower white and light green parts for eating (the bottom four to six inches, Photo 3). It smells and tastes exactly like cucumber. You can eat the shoots raw, throw them in a stir fry, sauté with butter and garlic, or pickle or ferment them to enjoy later. Get creative with your Cat-tail dishes!
Later in spring, 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.
As always, keep conservation in mind when picking Cat-tails. In addition to filtering contaminants, Cat-tails help stabilize wetland shorelines, provide nesting habitat for birds such as the Red-winged Blackbird, and are food for animals such as Beaver, Muskrat, and Canada Geese. Take only what you’ll use, and ensure lots are left on site when you’re done.
Cat-tail: a cool – and tasty – part of PEI Untamed!