They caught my attention on one of my drives through the Whitewater valley earlier this winter. With a recent snowfall, the thousands of brown heads stood out with caps of white.
Cattails are one of those plants most people are familiar with, and they can't be mistaken for anything else when flowered out. Found throughout much of the U.S., as well as in other countries, cattails thrive well in aquatic habitats, especially shallower waters less than three feet deep.
There are basically two different types of cattails that may be commonly found throughout Minnesota. The native one, broadleaf cattail, has been joined over the past few decades by the narrowleaf cattail that has hybridized with the broadleaf and is out-competing it in many settings. Although some sites I found suggested the narrowleaf cattail is native across the U.S., more seem to believe it came to our East Coast from Europe, spreading through waterways across the country over the past couple centuries.
Essentially cattails are made up of spreading underwater roots that send up new shoots, including leaves and flower stalks each spring. Flower stalks are divided, with the top portion producing pollen that blows in the wind to fertilize the seed-producing portion of the stalks. Once spent of its pollen, the top portion is just a hard spike, while the soft and densely packed seed head underneath is the portion that most identify cattails by. In broadleaf cattails, these two parts are connected directly, while the more invasive narrowleaf variety has a gap between them.
Over the years, broadleaf cattails have provided shoreline stabilization and habitat for wildlife including nesting birds and numerous fish species. But the narrowleaf behaves differently, growing more tightly together, establishing a dense monoculture and eliminating much of the habitat that brings more diversity to the environment. When these cattails take hold of a wetland they can completely cover it, obliterate sight of any water, and ultimately turn the site into barren land.
But the success of cattails to grow in aquatic environments, often becoming invasive, has somewhat overshadowed their versatility as a food source, one which is probably not used as much as it could be. When new flower spikes emerge in spring, they are green and firm and may be harvested for eating. The pollen-producing top may be used as cooking flour when yellow. One recipe I found even used the mature fluffy seed heads to make a pulled pork-like treat.
The white stalks, coming off the roots, which I recall eating in a past wild edibles class, can be quite tasty and, with some hard work in removing fibers, the roots are also a food source. Just before World War II ended, cattail was being considered as a means to feed soldiers, producing more starch per acre than potatoes, rice, or yams. Fortunately, the war ended so soldiers did not have to be cattail guinea pigs.
If you are up for some bites out of the ordinary, harvest some cattail parts this spring and use any of the many recipes that can be found online to bring them to your table. Just a slight word of caution — don't harvest in areas subject to a lot of pollution, like many of our local storm water ponds, as cattail are also good at taking pollutants out of the water into their own cells.
And, if cattails have been part of your culinary delights, please share your experiences with me.