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Edible Cat-tail vs. Toxic Iris: Know the Difference!

PEI has so many wild spring foods! Over the past month, we’ve looked at Dandelion, Dock, Evening Primrose, Fiddleheads, and Watercress. Spruce tips, Nettles, and a mushroom surprise will be on the menu next week. Today, I want to feature edible Cat-tails (Typha latifolia), with a special focus on how to tell them apart from native but toxic Blue-flag Iris (Iris versicolor).

Photo 1: A group of edible Cat-tail (Typha latifolia) and toxic Blue-flag Iris (Iris versicolor).

Every part of a Cat-tail is edible at some point during the year. Right now, it’s the new shoots. Later in spring the green flower spikes can be cooked and eaten, and 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. Cat-tails and Iris aren’t hard to tell apart in summer and fall, but it can be easier to confuse them where they grow side-by-side in spring (Photo 1). Fortunately, there are a couple of features to help you positively identify each.

Photo 2: Leaf shape is one way to tell Cat-tail from Iris.

First, Cat-tail leaves are D-shaped in cross-section: flat on one side and rounded on the other (Photo 2, left). Iris leaves are flatter and more symmetrical in cross-section, often with a ridge down the middle (Photo 2, right). Second, Cat-tail shoots and stems are round in cross-section and various shades of green throughout (Photo 3, left). Iris shoots and stems are more almond-shaped, often (though not always!) with some purple hue (Photo 3, right). If you look closely at Photo 1, you’ll see some subtler differences as well: Iris are the lighter green plants, some of which are bent over (that bending is not a reliable indicator). If you look at the tips of those leaves, you’ll notice they’re more sharply pointed than the blunt-tipped Cat-tails. To get an idea of how similar the two plants can appear, look at the group in the lower left-hand corner of Photo 1: that’s Cat-tail on the left and Iris on the right.

Photo 3: Cat-tail and Iris also have different stems.

Once you’ve positively identified your Cat-tails (and know you’re harvesting from an unpolluted site), peel off the outer leaves. You’ll find layers of gel between the leaves, which you can use on minor cuts and burns as you would aloe vera. Wash the plants well, and you’ll have something that looks like a leek. Cut off the lower white and light green parts (Photo 4) and eat them as-is (they taste like Cucumber!), slice into salads or stir-fries, sauté with butter and garlic, or try them in your favourite pickle recipe.

Photo 4: Cat-tail shoots in the kitchen. I enjoy their fresh, cucumber-y taste.

As always, keep conservation in mind. Cat-tails improve water quality by filtering contaminants, 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. Enjoy this tasty part of PEI untamed!

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