Cattails, as a foraging target, can be a bit tricky. They are really tempting, because every part of the plant is edible at some point in the growth cycle. They also grow in just about every pond. But, at least around the front range, they are rarely in a good spot to harvest.
Cattails are an aquatic plant. They like wet, swampy sorts of places, which aren’t too common around the front range of Colorado. Where they exist, these mucky little wetlands tend to be retention ponds. And that poses a problem for the urban forager.
One of the biggest problems with urban foraging is that pretty much everywhere you would like to forage is also any area where there might be road runoff, dog poop, or pesticide spraying. And retention ponds, where cattails like to grow, are the places where all of that nasty stuff flows to when it rains. For that reason, cattails can be a bioaccumulator. They grow in ponds that receive all that nasty runoff and can pick up a lot of that nastiness. That said, they are a really delicious wild edible.
Cattails can be used in tons of ways. The pollen can be mixed with flour to make cakes, the young seed pods can be eaten like corn, the rhizomes can be roasted and eaten, and the young shoots are especially good as a fresh vegetable. You just need to make sure that when you pick a spot to harvest cattails, you are picking wisely.
The spot that I chose is not totally absent of the above-mentioned issues. It is nearly impossible to find an urban site that does not have runoff from any of those things. On the front range every stream has road runoff, dog poop, and probably pesticide somewhere upstream. But the spot I chose is far from the main stream, so it is somewhat removed from the daily runoff. It is only inundated during large flood events, which dilute pollutants at the site. That said, I will still blanche these shoots to reduce bacteria present, and I won’t plan on eating there every day. I don’t think that a few shoots here and there will hurt me too much.
For this recipe, we will be making a Chinese-inspired salad of young cattail shoots. They have a crunchy, melon, cucumber sort of flavor, so they are perfect either in place of, or mixed with cucumbers in this salad. It is based off of my Chinese Smashed Cucumber salad recipe, and it is something really special. It is great on its own and is the perfect accompaniment to a meal of dumplings or braised pork belly.
Cattails (Typha spp.) are another plant that I feel like most people can mostly already identify. Those big, sausagey female flowers are a dead giveaway. And cattails often grow in near monoculture, so if you can identify one cattail, odds are the plant next to it is a cattail too. But we can go over some identification notes as well.
-Leaves are flat and sword-shaped, often growing 3 feet tall. Leaves will be slightly spongy due to the many channels carrying air to the roots.
-Stems are round and similarly tall, around 3 feet in good conditions.
-Flowers are split into male and female portions. The female flower is the familiar sausage shaped section, while the male flower is a cone above that at the tip of the stem.
-Roots are fibrous rhizomes which spread in all directions–this rhizomatous growth is part of why cattails are so effective at creating monocultures.
In the early spring, the primary harvest is the young leaves and shoots. Harvest these by grasping the inner leaves of the plant and pulling firmly. You don’t need to yank, they will pop out. Trim off sections that are too spongy or tough and enjoy the crisp young shoots like you would cucumber.
Later in the spring the young male flowers can be harvested of their pollen or eaten whole like corn on the cob. Rhizomes are best harvested in the fall.
Chinese Cattail Salad:
2 cups cattail shoots
1 english cucumber (optional)
1 ½ tbsp chinkiang vinegar (rice vinegar works, but look for this stuff at your local asian market)
1 tsp chili oil
2 tsp soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
2 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp minced garlic
1 tbsp grapeseed or high-quality olive oil
Salt to taste
2 cloves garlic, smashed, fried, and crumbled
Crushed red pepper to taste
Begin by washing and briefly blanching the cattail shoots. With most urban foraging I like to take the extra precaution of blanching them for at least a minute or so to kill any stray bacteria. So, bring water to a boil and drop them in for about 60 seconds. They aren’t meant to really cook, just to get cleaned up a bit.
If you are adding a cucumber, begin by slicing it into quarters lengthwise. Smash these against the cutting board and then slice them thin. Give them a hefty pinch of salt and sugar, and put them in a strainer in the sink to drain for 30 minutes.
You can make the dressing now and have it ready when the cucumbers have drained. There’s no trick to it, just combine all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl or glass and mix well.
Put the cattail shoots and cucumber in a container, pour the dressing over, and put it in the fridge for another 30 minutes. You can also do this well ahead or even the night before, if you’d like.
To garnish, I like to add some crunch. Smash a couple cloves of garlic and fry them in oil until they are light brown. Remove them from the pan and let them get nice and crunchy. Then crumbled them over the cattail salad alongside some crushed red pepper.
Disclaimer: with any foraging, make sure that you positively ID a plant before you eat it. Don’t use only this guide. Plants vary tremendously within a species, so make sure you look at lots of pictures and several guides. Be safe!