What is a dandelion and its uses?
A look at the dandelion as more than a weed, including it’s medicinal value, a recipe, it’s place in folklore and superstitions, and as a favorite of children.
The dandelion or Taraxacum officinale, is one of the hardiest plants known to man. It has numerous uses; from medicinal to child’s play, yet many people spend hundreds of dollars each year trying to eradicate this plant from their yard and garden. Classified by most people as a weed, as with many things in life, what is one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. This adage certainly applies to the dandelion. Do not use it before talking to you doctor.
The dandelion grows prolifically across the United States and Canada, averaging 8” to 12 inches in height, each flower an average ¾ to 1”across. The blossom is a deep yellow with a lighter yellow edge. The dandelion grows one flower per stalk, and when the stem is cracked, the center will ooze a milky substance. The growing period is long, averaging from early spring until late fall in most areas.
Nicknamed Lion’s Tooth, because some feel the jagged edge of the leaves resembles the jaw and teeth of an animal or lion. The name dandelion itself is actually from the French dent-de-lion, referring directly to the plants edge resemblance.
Also nicknamed puffball or Blow Ball, because when the plant seeds, the flower turns into a white ‘puff ball’ that when blown on, has given children of all ages, for time immortal, a way to have fun!
The dandelion has many uses. It is a natural diuretic and some people consider the roots, when processed correctly, as the best laxative ever. Herbalists to treat liver ailments also use it in different forms. The roots of the plant are often roasted to make a drink similar to coffee or tea. This is also often added to regular coffee to improve on the coffees flavoring. Many wild birds rely on the seeds for use as a main staple of their diet. Bees frequent the plant for its nectar, and many beekeepers swear that dandelions help produce some of the world’s best honey. Farm animals have varying likes and dislikes for it. Pigs seem to love the plant, while horses will not touch it. The greens can be used in a variety of recipes and even wine making.
As a young child, I would be sent outside early on Sunday mornings to collect the green of the plant for the afternoon meal. The leaves need to be picked early, before the flower has opened. If picked after the blossom has opened for the day, the leaves can be extremely bitter. I would also look for new plants, ones that had not even sprouted a flower, as these would be of the best quality. After gathering several handfuls, these would be washed the same as a leaf lettuce, in cold water. Once clean, they would then be thoroughly dried by shaking and then laying out on clean paper toweling. The earlier in the year the better also. Spring plants always made a better salad than late summer or fall plants. The recipe for my mother’s salad follows:
Clean, dried dandelion greens, approx. two handfuls
Five strips of bacon, fried crisp, let cool and break apart
½ cup vinegar
Small red onion diced
¾ tsp. Sugar
In a shallow pan of boiling water, add dandelion leaves for just long enough to heat, drain off water and add remaining ingredients, only adding enough sugar to cut any remaining bitterness. It is best to experiment with the sugar. Salt and pepper may also be added to taste. Serve while still warm.
Besides salads, the greens can also be used as a sandwich ingredient alone, with a bit of salt and oleo to taste, or as a substitute for lettuce. The nutritional value of the dandelion greens is believed to include vitamins A, B, and C.
Dandelions also hold a place in superstition and folklore. If a dandelion blossom stayed open all night, it was believed to foretell of rain the following day. Sniff a dandelion, if your nose turns yellow, you are in love with a fellow, if your nose does not turn, no fellow is in love with you. It was believed good luck to carry a few (just two or three) dandelions amongst your wedding bouquet, as it would bring prosperity to the marriage in money, children, and health.
It was good luck for a young woman to wear a necklace of dandelions if she made them, but not lucky if someone gave them to her. Bad luck to pick dandelions in a cemetery. Worse luck if they brought them home from a cemetery, and even worse if they gave them away after picking them in the cemetery, except to lay them on a loved one's grave. Some would rub a dandelion between their hands and rub the yellow on any spot that ached or swelled.
Dandelions and the uses and myths around them are as plentiful as they are themselves. Children have found many uses for dandelions throughout the years. Because of their plentiful supply, and supple stems, they have been braided into many a bracelet or necklace by little girls. Once they have turned to seed, children would blow them off into white swirls, for each blow it took to empty the puffball equaled one hour of the day that had passed. Long a favorite from the past and destined to continue as one.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Common milkweed has been used traditionally a tea prepared from its root as a diuretic for kidney stones, a laxative, and an expectorant. It has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis and it induces sweating. The sap has been used for chewing gum, which is considered very dangerous because of the presence of cardio active compounds in the plant. The sap has also been used as a topical remedy for warts, ringworm and moles. Some Native Americans used milkweed as a contraceptive. It was also a folk remedy for cancer. Today, milkweed has limited medicinal use; other milkweed species, such as the swamp milkweed, have more widespread use. Parts of the milkweed plant can be eaten, but the similarity of this plant to toxic look-alikes would serve as a caution against this practice. It is used by some as an emetic, a potion to sooth the nerves, and as a stomach tonic. It is also believed to kill parasitic worms.
In lore, legend and life: In World War II, children in the United States were encouraged to collect milkweed pods and turn them in to the government, where the fluffy silk was used to stuff life vests and flying suits. The silk was especially good because of its exceptional buoyancy and lightweight. Also in World War II, because of the shortage of natural rubber, scientists in the United States tried to turn common milkweed’s latex into a rubber like substitute.
Monarch butterflies are particularly attracted to the flowers of the common milkweed and other milkweed relatives.
In Hindu mythology, relatives of the common milkweed were considered to be the king of plants; it was believed that the creating god was under the influence of milkweed juice when he created the universe.
Milkweed isn't your average weed; in fact, I feel guilty calling it a weed at all. The common milkweed, Asclepias syriacqa, is one of the best known wild plants in North America. Children love to play with the downy fluff in autumn, while farmers despise it as a tenacious weed of hayfields and pastures.
Butterfly enthusiasts adore milkweed as the sustenance for their beloved monarch. Hardly any country dweller can fail to notice this unique, elegant plant so laden with fragrant, multi-colored blossoms in midsummer.
Milkweed has served humans in many ways. During World War II, American schoolchildren collected milkweed floss to fill life preservers for the armed forces. This same floss is being used today by a Nebraska company called Ogallalla Down to stuff jackets, comforters, and pillows-and some people believe that it will become an important fiber crop in the future. It has an insulating effect surpassing that of goose down. Native Americans employed the tough stalk fibers for making string and rope.
Not least among the uses of common milkweed, however, is its versatility as a vegetable. Milkweed produces four different edible products, and all of them are delicious. It was a regular food item for all Native American tribes within its broad range.
Milkweed in flower
Gathering and cooking milkweed
There is a beautiful patch of milkweed in my field. I treat it as an outpost of my garden-one I never have to tend. Because milkweed is perennial, it appears every season in this same locality.
The milkweed season begins in late spring (just about the time that leaves are coming out on the oak trees) when the shoots come up near the dead stalks of last year's plants. These resemble asparagus spears, but have tiny leaves, in opposing pairs, pressed up flat against the stem. Until they are about eight inches tall, milkweed shoots make a delicious boiled vegetable. Their texture and flavor suggest a cross between green beans and asparagus, but it is distinct from either. As the plant grows taller, the bottom of the shoot becomes tough. Until it attains a height of about two feet, however, you can break off the top few inches (remove any large leaves) and use this portion like the shoot.
Milkweed flower buds first appear in early summer and can be harvested for about seven weeks. They look like immature heads of broccoli but have roughly the same flavor as the shoots. These flower buds are wonderful in stir-fry, soup, rice casseroles, and many other dishes. Just make sure to wash the bugs out.
In late summer milkweed plants produce the familiar pointed, okra-like seedpods which are popular in dried flower arrangements. These range from three to five inches long when mature, but for eating you want the immature pods. Select those that are no more than two-thirds of their full size. It takes a little experience to learn the knack of how to tell if the pods are still immature, so as a beginner you might want to stick to using pods less than 1-3/4 inches in length to be safe. If the pods are immature the silk and seeds inside will be soft and white without any hint of browning. It is good to occasionally use this test to verify that you are only choosing immature pods. If the pods are mature they will be extremely tough. Milkweed pods are delicious in stew or just served as a boiled vegetable, perhaps with cheese or mixed with other veggies.
"Silk" refers to the immature milkweed floss, before it has become fibrous and cottony. This is perhaps the most unique food product that comes from the milkweed plant. When you consume the pod, you are eating the silk with it. At our house, we eat the smallest pods whole, but we pull the silk out of the larger (but still immature) pods. Open up the pod along the faint line that runs down the side, and the silk wad will pop out easily. If you pinch the silk hard, your thumbnail should go right through it, and you should be able to pull the wad of silk in half. The silk should be juicy; any toughness or dryness is an indicator that the pod is mature. With time, you will be able to tell at a glance which pods are mature and which are not.
Milkweed silk is both delicious and amazing. It is slightly sweet with no overpowering flavor of any kind. Boil a large handful of these silk wads with a pot of rice or cous cous and the finished product will look like it contains melted mozzarella. The silk holds everything together, so it's great in casseroles as well. It looks and acts so much like cheese, and tastes similar enough too, that people assume it IS cheese until I tell them otherwise. I have not yet run out of new ways to use milkweed silk in the kitchen-but I keep running out of the silk that I can for the winter!
With all of these uses, it is amazing that milkweed has not become a popu lar vegetable. The variety of products that it provides ensures a long season of harvest. It is easy to grow (or find) and a small patch can provide a substantial yield. Most importantly, milkweed is delicious. Unlike many foods that were widely eaten by Native Americans, European immigrants did not adopt milkweed into their household economy. We should correct that mistake.
You will find that some books on wild foods recommend boiling milkweed in multiple changes of water to eliminate the "bitterness." This is not necessary for common milkweed Asclepias syriaca (which is the subject of this article, and the milkweed that most people are familiar with). Common milkweed is not bitter.
The multiple-boiling recommendation pertains to other species of milkweed, and in my experience, it doesn't work to eliminate the bitterness anyway. I advise not eating the bitter species at all.
Common milkweed contains a small amount of toxins that are soluble in water. (Before you get too worried, remember that tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, almonds, tea, black pepper, hot pepper, mustard, horseradish, cabbage and many other foods we regularly consume contain small amounts of toxins.) Boiling milkweed parts until tender and then discarding the water, which is the usual preparation, renders them perfectly safe. Milkweed is also safe to eat in modest quantities without draining off the water. Do not eat mature leaves, stems, seeds or pods.
Finding and identifying milkweed
You might laugh at the proposition of looking for milkweed, as this plant is so well known and widespread that many of us would have trouble hiding from it. Common milkweed occurs across the eastern half of the continent, except for the Deep South and the Far North. It grows well up into Canada and west to the middle of the Great Plains.
Milkweed is a perennial herb of old fields, roadsides, small clearings, streamsides and fencerows. It is most abundant in farm country, where it sometimes forms large colonies covering an acre or more. The plants can be recognized at highway speeds by their distinct form: large, oblong, rather thick leaves in opposite pairs all along the thick, unbranching stem. This robust herb attains a height of four to seven feet where it is not mowed down. The unique clusters of drooping pink, purple and white flower, and the seedpods that look like eggs with one end pointed, are hard to forget.
The young shoots of milkweed look a little like dogbane, a common plant that is mildly poisonous. Beginners sometimes confuse the two, but they are not prohibitively difficult to tell apart.
This is Dogbane
Dogbane shoots are much thinner than those of milkweed (see photo on page 47), which is quite obvious when the plants are seen side-by-side. Milkweed leaves are much bigger. Dogbane stems are usually reddish-purple on the upper part, and become thin before the top leaves, while milkweed stems are green and remain thick even up to the last set of leaves. Milkweed stems have minute fuzz, while those of dogbane lack fuzz and are almost shiny. Dogbane grows much taller than milkweed (often more than a foot) before the leaves fold out and begin to grow, while milkweed leaves usually fold out at about six to eight inches. As the plants mature, dogbane sports many spreading branches, while milkweed does not. Both plants do have milky sap, however, so this cannot be used to identify milkweed.
There are several species of milkweed besides the common milkweed. Most are very small or have pointed, narrow leaves and narrow pods. Of course, it goes without saying that you should never eat a plant unless you are absolutely positive of its identification. If in doubt about milkweed in a particular stage, mark the plants and watch them throughout an entire year so that you know them in every phase of growth. Consult a few good field guides to assure yourself. Once you are thoroughly familiar with the plant, recognizing it will require nothing more than a glance.
Common milkweed's reputation as a bitter pill is almost certainly the result of people mistakenly trying dogbane or other, bitter milkweeds. Keep in mind this rule of mouth: If the milkweed is bitter, don't eat it! Accidentally trying the wrong species might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but as long as you spit it out, it will not hurt you. Never eat bitter milkweed.
Milkweed should be a lesson to us all; it is a foe turned friend, a plant of diverse uses and one of the most handsome herbs in our landscape. We are still discovering and re-discovering the natural wonders of this marvelous continent. What other treasures have been hiding under our noses for generations?
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is a familiar meadow herb, one of 250 species in the Leguminosae, or pea family. The Irish shamrock is another species in this family of plants. Red clover is a European native naturalized throughout North America and Canada. This familiar short-lived perennial grows wild along roadsides, in meadows, and in fields, and is extensively cultivated as a forage crop for cattle. It grows best in soils that are rich in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. The common names for this sweet herb include wild clover, meadow trefoil, bee bread, trefoil, cow grass, purple clover, and three-leafed grass.
Red clover grows to about 2 ft (61 cm) high from a short, woody rootstock. The leaves are palmate and arranged alternately along the round, grooved, and hairy stem. They are divided into three oblong or oval leaflets, a characteristic that has given the genus its name. The dark green leaves often have a splash of a pale green or white on each leaflet. The leaf margins are toothed. The red-purple or magenta-hued blossoms comprise numerous florets that form a globe-shaped flower on the end of the stalk. Red clover blooms throughout the summer. The edible blossoms are sweet-tasting with a honey-like fragrance. Bees are attracted to clover blossoms, but seem to prefer the white blossoms of another common variety of clover, often growing nearby.
In folk tradition, red clover was associated with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity because of its threefold leaflets. In England it was worn as a magic charm to protect against evil. The herb's value as a medicinal remedy was not well known until the herb made its way to North America. Native American herbalists soon found numerous medicinal uses for this common wayside beauty. Red clover was used as a cancer treatment; the blossoms, combined with other herbs, became commercially popular in the United States in the 1930s. Numerous so-called "Trifolium Compounds" were marketed as blood purifiers, or alteratives, to help clear the body of metabolic toxins. The herb was listed in the National Formulary of the United States until 1946.
Red clover has most often been used to treat such skin inflammations as psoriasis and eczema. It also acts as an expectorant and demulcent, and is helpful in the treatment of bronchitis and spasmodic coughs, particularly whooping cough. Red clover may stimulate the liver and gall bladder and has been used for constipation and sluggish appetite. The blossoms were smoked as a remedy for asthma. An infusion of red clover blossoms used as a skin wash, or a poultice prepared from fresh blossoms, may relieve the irritation of athlete's foot or insect bites. The infusion is also useful as an external skin wash in the treatment of persistent sores and ulcers, and may help speed healing. As an eyewash, red clover tincture diluted with fresh water may relieve conjunctivitis. An ointment prepared from red clover is helpful for lymphatic swellings, and a compress made with it may relieve the pain of arthritis and gout. More recently, red clover has been studied as an alternative remedy for hot flashes in menopausal women as well as hot flashes in men following surgery for prostate cancer.
Many of the chemical constituents present in red clover have been identified, including volatile oil, isoflavonoids, coumarin derivatives, and cyanogenic glycosides. Few scientific studies, however, have confirmed the folk use of red clover remedies. The genistein found in red clover has been found to contribute to the shrinking of cancerous tumors in vitro by preventing growth of the new blood vessels that feed the tumors. One of the first studies using purified extract of red clover, published in 1999, concluded that use of red clover in standardized extracts that include specific quantities of the four isoflavones genistein, daidzein, biochanin and formononetin, resulted in improved heart health in postmenopausal women. Red clover is considered by some herbalists to be a phytoestrogenic herb, useful in restoring estrogen balance in women. The chemical formononetin, found in red clover, acts on the body in a similar way as estrogen.
Red clover blossoms are the medicinally active part of this herb. Fully open blossoms can be harvested throughout the flowering season. Pick the flower heads on a sunny day after the morning dew has evaporated. Spread the blossoms on a paper-lined tray to dry in a bright and airy room away from direct sun. The temperature in the drying room should be at least 70°F (21°C). When the blossoms are completely dry, store dried flowers in a dark glass container with an air-tight lid. The dried herb will maintain medicinal potency for 12–18 months. Clearly label the container with the name of the herb and the date and place harvested.
Tincture: Combine 4 oz of fresh or dried red clover blossoms with 1 pint of brandy, gin, or vodka in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the flowers. The ratio should be close to 50/50 alcohol to water. Stir and cover. Place the mixture in a dark cupboard for three to five weeks. Shake the mixture several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, clearly labeled dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 1–3 mL of the tincture three times a day. Tinctures properly prepared and stored will retain medicinal potency for two years or longer.
Infusion: Place 2 oz fresh clover blossoms, less if dried, in a warmed glass container. Bring 2.5 cups of fresh nonchlorinated water to the boiling point and add it to the herbs. Cover the tea and steep for about 30 minutes, then strain. Drink cold, a few mouthfuls at a time throughout the day, up to one cup per day. The prepared tea may be kept for about two days in the refrigerator.
Ointment: Add fresh clover blossom to a glass pan of nonchlorinated water. Simmer on low heat or in a crock pot for two days. Strain. Allow most of the water to evaporate and combine the plant extract with an equal amount of melted beeswax. Pour while warm into small airtight containers.
Red clover is a safe and mild remedy. No adverse effects have been reported in humans when taking therapeutic doses of the herb. Allergic reactions to red clover are rare but possible. Numerous reports of toxicity, even death, however, have been reported in cattle who overgraze in fields of clover.
No side effects in humans have been reported for nonfermented red clover. Fermented extracts of red clover, however, may cause bleeding.
No interactions have been reported between red clover and other herbs. It has, however, been reported to have adverse interactions with certain allopathic medications, particularly heparin, ticlopidine, and warfarin. Red clover also reduces the body's absorption of combined estrogens.
Queen Anne's Lace
Queen Anne's Lace, also called "Wild Carrot," is a common plant in dry fields, ditches, and open areas. It was introduced from Europe, and the carrots that we eat today were once cultivated from this plant.
Queen Anne's Lace grows up to four feet tall. Its leaves are two to eight inches long and fern-like. This plant is best known for its flowers, which are tiny and white, blooming in lacy, flat-topped clusters. Each little flower has a dark, purplish center.
The fruits of Queen Anne's Lace are spiky, and they curl inward to build a "birds' nest" shape.
This plant blooms from May to October. It is a biennial plant, which means it lives for two years. It will spend the first year growing bigger, and then bloom the second year.
Since Queen Anne's Lace was introduced to this country, many people consider it an invasive weed. It will sometimes crowd and compete with native plants.
Some animals have benefited from the arrival of this wildflower. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne's Lace to attack prey, such as aphids.
People can eat the large taproot, which of course, is a carrot. The leaves of the plant, though, are toxic, and may irritate the skin.
Relationship to Humans:
As mentioned above, the taproots of Queen Anne's Lace are carrots, and are edible. Be cautious when handling this plant, though. Skin irritation is common. Also, there is a similar-looking plant, called Water Hemlock, which is deadly to eat. People have died eating what they thought was Queen Anne's Lace. Do not attempt to eat Queen Anne's Lace unless you have a positive identification from an expert! Many people plant Queen Anne's Lace in their gardens to attract insect predators, such as Green Lacewings and ant lions. Queen Anne's Lace will first attract aphids and other small pests, which will in turn attract the predators. Once the predators have arrived, they will continue to eat pests throughout the garden.
A medicinal infusion is used in the treatment of various complaints including digestive disorders, (soothes the digestive tract), kidney and bladder diseases and in the treatment of dropsy, it supports the liver, stimulates the flow of urine and the removal of waste by the kidneys. A wonderfully cleansing medicinal herb, an infusion of the leaves has been used to counter cystitis and kidney stone formation, and to diminish stones that have already formed. The seeds can be used as a settling carminative agent for the relief of flatulence and colic.
Wild Carrot leaves contain significant amounts of porphyrins, which stimulate the pituitary gland and lead to the release of increased levels of sex hormones, and stimulates the uterus. The plant is also used to encourage delayed menstruation, can induce uterine contractions and so should not be used by pregnant women. The seed is a traditional 'morning after' contraceptive and there is some evidence to uphold this belief. An essential oil obtained from the seed has also been used cosmetically in anti-wrinkle creams. A strong decoction of the seeds and root make a very good insecticide.
The name 'Carrot' is Celtic, and means 'red of color,' and Daucus from the Greek dais to burn, signifying its pungent and stimulating qualities. An Old English superstition is that the small purple flower in the center of the Wild Carrot was of benefit in curing epilepsy.
"Medicinal" tea: To 1 OZ. of dried herb add 1 pint of boiling water steep l0-l5 min. drink three times a day.
Queen Anne's Lace Jelly
18 large Queen Anne's lace heads
4 Cups water
1/4 Cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled)
1 Package powdered pectin
3 1/2 Cups + 2 Tbsp. sugar
Bring water to boil. Remove from heat. Add flower heads (push them down into the water). Cover and steep 30 mins. Strain.
Measure 3 Cups liquid into 4-6 quart pan. Add lemon juice and pectin. Bring to a rolling boil stirring constantly. Add sugar and stir constantly. Cook and stir until mixture comes to a rolling boil. Boil one minute longer, then remove from heat.
Add color (pink) if desired. Skim. Pour into jars leaving 1/4" head space. Process in hot water bath for 5 mins.
Makes about 6 jars.
Monday, June 28, 2010
I can think of no other North American plant that is more useful than the cattail. This wonderful plant is a virtual gold mine of survival utility. It is a four-season food, medicinal, and utility plant. What other plant can boast eight food products, three medicinals, and at least 12 other functional uses?
Cattails in winter Cattails in winter
The Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) and its brethren Narrowleaf Cattail (Typha angustifolia), Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis), and Blue Cattail (Typha Glauca), have representatives found throughout North America and most of the world. Cattail is a member of the grass family, Gramineae, as are rice, corn, wheat, oats, barley, and rye, just to mention a few. Of the 15 most commonly consumed domesticated plant foods, 10 are grasses. However, of more than 1300 wild grasses, none holds a loftier position as a survival food than cattail. Just about any place you can find year-round standing water or wet soil, you can usually find cattails.
In Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, his chapter on cattails is titled “Supermarket of the Swamp.” As you will see, this title aptly applies to the cattail. However, due to its medicinal and utilitarian uses, we may want to mentally modify the title to “Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp.”
Cattails are readily identified by the characteristic brown seed head. There are some poisonous look-alikes that may be mistaken for cattail, but none of these look-alikes possess the brown seed head.
Cattail, Common and Narrow-leaf Cattail, Common and Narrow-leaf
Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and other members of the iris family all possess the cattail-like leaves, but none possesses the brown seed head. All members of the Iris family are poisonous. Another look-alike which is not poisonous, but whose leaves look more like cattail than iris is the Sweet Flag (Acorus calumus). Sweet Flag has a very pleasant spicy, sweet aroma when the leaves are bruised. It also does not posses the brown seed head. Neither the irises nor cattail has the sweet, spicy aroma. I have seen large stands of cattails and sweet flag growing side by side. As with all wild edibles, positive identification is essential. If you are not sure, do not eat it.
Corms, shoots, and spikes
In just about any survival situation, whether self-imposed or not, one of the first plants I look for is the cattail. As a food plant, cattails are outstanding and offer a variety of food products according to the season. In early spring, dig up the roots to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten, added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews or alone as a pot herb. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, peel and eat like the corms, or sautee. This food product is also known as “Cossack Asparagus” due to the Russians’ fondness for it.
In late spring to early summer, some of my favorite food products come into fruition on the cattail. Soon after these shoots become available, the green female bloom spikes and the male pollen spikes begin to emerge. These spikes can be found in the center of the plant and form a cylindrical projection that can only be detected when you’re close to the plant. Peel back the leaves in the same way you would shuck corn, and both the male portion above and the female below can be seen. The female portion will later develop into the familiar brown “cattail” seed head from which the plant’s name is derived. The male portion will atrophy into a small dried twig that may easily break off the top of the seed head. Both the male and female pollen spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob, and both are delicious. The male portion provides a bigger meal at this stage. They have a flavor that is corn-like, but distinct from corn. I cannot imagine anyone finding the flavor objectionable. Both may also be eaten raw.
Pollen and root starch
Later, the male pollen head will begin to develop an abundance of yellow pollen with a talcum powder consistency that can easily be shaken off into any container. Several pounds of this can be collected in less than an hour. The traditional use of this pollen is to substitute for some the flour in pancakes to make cattail pancakes. This also works well with cornbread. Other uses of the pollen include thickeners or flour extenders for breads, cakes, etc.
Cooked male and female pollen and bloom spikes Cooked male and female pollen and bloom spikes
In late summer to early fall, the tender inner portions of the leaf stalk may still be collected, but the availability of this Cossack Asparagus begins to dwindle, due to the toughening up of the plant. During this period and all the way to spring, the most abundant food product, the root starch, may be harvested. It is so abundant, a study was conducted at the Cattail Research Center of Syracuse University’s Department of Plant Sciences. The chief investigator of the project was Leland Marsh. The reported results were as follows:
Yields are fantastic. Marsh discovered he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That represents something more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes. In terms of dry weight of cattail flour, the 140 tons of roots would yield approximately 32 tons.
To extract the flour or starch from the cattail root, simply collect the roots, wash, and peel them. Next, break up the roots under water. The flour will begin to separate from the fibers. Continue this process until the fibers are all separated and the sweet flour is removed. Remove the fiber and pour off the excess water.
Allow the remaining flour slurry to dry by placing near a fire or using the sun.
Cattail root flour also contains gluten. Gluten is the constituent in wheat flour that allows flour to rise in yeast breads. The Iroquois Indians macerated and boiled the roots to produce a fine syrup, which they used in a corn meal pudding and to sweeten other dishes. Some Indians burned the mature brown seed heads to extract the small seeds from the fluff, which was used to make gruels and added to soups.
Medicinal and other uses
The medicinal uses of cattails include poultices made from the split and bruised roots that can be applied to cuts,
Yellow Flag, a poisonous cattail look-alike. None of the look-alikes has the characteristic brown seed head. Yellow Flag, a poisonous cattail look-alike.
None of the look-alikes has the
characteristic brown seed head.
wounds, burns, stings, and bruises. The ash of the burned cattail leaves can be used as an antiseptic or styptic for wounds. A small drop of a honey-like excretion, often found near the base of the plant, can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.
The utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination. The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts. The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs, which has been a traditional use for hundreds of years.
They can be woven into baskets, hats, mats, and beds. The dried seed heads attached to their stalks can be dipped into melted animal fat or oil and used as torches.