Cattail Catta-strophe

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you are probably aware of my repeated failures to forage cattails (Typha spp).

This year … is no different.

I FINALLY got my muddy little paws on some cattails, unfortunately too late in the summer for, well, much of anything!

(It might’ve helped if I owned a copy of Samuel Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest before attempting the cattails, but due to my strict book diet, I did not have it handy to review. Until now. I may have cheated on my book diet. But I’ll be better prepared for next year!)

A mid-summer stand of cattails
A mid-summer stand of cattails

First off, if you know anything about cattails (I didn’t), this stand is way past “pollen harvesting” time. The brown hot dog looking things are the fertilized female flowers from the male flowers on top which were now dry and desiccated and long past the point where they produced pollen. Some people also enjoy eating the male flowers (referred to a “cattail on the cob”) and again, that will require a much, much earlier visit to this stand. Maybe the beginning of May rather than the tail end of July!

Apparently it was also the wrong season for cattail hearts.

Attempt at harvesting cattail hearts
Attempt at harvesting cattail hearts

As much as I focused on the largest cattail stalks and peeled away the leaves hunting for that soft interior, every single one was tough and stringy – not the sort of eating experience I imagined. Turning back to Thayer, apparently spring and early summer are the ideal time to harvest the hearts.

Apparently my technique was lacking as well. I had been invited to forage the cattails where they were encroaching on the property owner’s electric fence so I was pulling up the whole plant along that edge. Reading (and re-reading) Thayer’s description of how to harvest the hearts cleanly, I can only imagine I’ll have to actually try it next year to fully wrap my head around it. I, and all the supplies I brought to the edge of the watery muck with me, ended up completely covered in mud!

Of course, pulling up whole plants made it very easy to find the rhizomes, the inside of which can be processed into a starchy flour for thickening soups or casseroles.

A scrawny cattail rhizome
A scrawny cattail rhizome

Except, not these rhizomes. Everyone I pulled up was thin and sunken in. Come to find out, apparently fall and winter is the right time for rhizomes. That’s when they are plumpest, I presume to provide nutrition to allow the stand to survive harsh winter weather.

My only moderate success was a handful of what Thayer calls laterals, because they project laterally from the cattail plant. They will eventually mature into rhizomes, but at this stage can be eaten raw, or cooked as a vegetable, with no additional preparation.

A few cattail laterals
A few cattail laterals

I mean, once you get the mud off.

I only managed to find a handful of these – again, my technique was lacking, filled with trepidation as I was about sticking my hands into muddy, murky ick that I couldn’t see into. No telling what else may have been down there! But late summer into early fall is the best time for laterals, so at least I was on the right track with this one.

What foraging successes (or failures, or downright messes!) are you having this summer?

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