The renowned forager and writer Euell Gibbons called cattails “the supermarket of the swamps,” and from that moniker other nicknames have emerged, among them “the Walmart of the swamps.” Although evoking Walmart doesn’t help me to connect with my joy for wild plants, the sobriquets are so given because of all the different plant food cattails (Typha spp.) yield—from the shoots (aka hearts or leaf cores) and flower spikes* to cattail pollen as flour, along with several underground parts, among which the rhizomes require a bit of processing to separate the edible starches. It is also often the case that cattails are quite plentiful where they occur, making them a good choice for a sustainable wild harvest.
Perhaps easiest to collect and process are the shoots or hearts, also known as “Cossack asparagus.” These are best harvested in spring and early summer, prior to the development of the flower stalk (Thayer, 2006), by giving a mellow yanking to the inner leaves near the base of the plant until the soft, white core releases, bringing the attached long green leaves with it. I usually cut the long green leaves off in the field, keeping just the bottom portion to finish cleaning in the kitchen.
The Heart: To Cook or Not to Cook?
Since cattail hearts are described as tasting like cucumbers, I decided to use the comparison to come up with a recipe for Hunger & Thirst’s June recipe share. But the recipe idea I came up with requires raw cucumbers, not cooked ones.
Numerous sources say to eat cattail hearts raw or cooked, though in The Forager’s Harvest (2006), Sam Thayer complains of getting “an itchy, irritated feeling” in the back of his throat when he eats them raw, so he prefers to cook them. I get a little of this sensation but it is not uncomfortable, just a bit strange.