Visiting family in Delaware, I rediscovered an old book called A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Peterson. Figuring a post on an edible plant would be appropriate for Thanksgiving, I cracked the book and was captivated by this note on Typha latifolia, also known as the common cattail:
Probably no other plant, wild or domestic, is more versatile than Common Cattail. In addition to yielding food year-round, it provides the material for making torches, mattresses, rush seats, and flower arrangements.
That’s the text accompanying the plate image of the plant. The full text is full of more lush detail on just how one might eat cattails year-round. The edible portions of cattails include “young shoots and stalks, immature flower spikes, pollen, sprouts, [and] rootstock.” I think my favorite detail is this:
In earliest spring as they begin to extend, but before they break through the surface of the mud, these sprouts can be peeled, boiled briefly, and pickled in hot vinegar. In addition, the starchy core at the base of each sprout can be prepared like a potato.
I thought I’d remembered that cattails were in danger of replacement by invasive Phragmites here on the east coast of the United States. Phrases from the Wikipedia “cattail” entry like “dominant competitors” and “aggressive,” as well as tips for destroying cattails through burning and flooding made me doubt myself.
Other sources, though, bear out the narrative of Phragmites displacing cattails. So this led to new questions — most centrally, if cattails are so “dominant” and “aggressive,” then how are they being displaced by Phragmites?
It turns out the likely answer to this question emerges from Delaware too: researchers at the University of Delaware discovered a few years ago that “upon exposure to UV irradiation, a root-secreted toxin from Phragmites facilitates rhizotoxicity in susceptible plant species.” In other words, sunlight leads Phragmites to release poison from their roots that kills competitors. This result led the researchers to “hypothesize that the photo-chemically transformed products of GA in aquatic ecosystems could be potentially toxic to competing grass species leading to marsh invasion and monoculture formation by Phragmites.”
I’ll be honest: it’s Thanksgiving, so I’m not going to put the time into figuring out the mechanism for this competitor-poisoning behavior by Phragmites right now. It does sound really interesting, though, so look for it here later. For now, let’s just take a moment to thank members of the genus Typha for being so useful — and apparently delicious — and to stand in awe of the complexity of plant life that surrounds us every day.