People like to learn about and collect wild edible plants for a variety of reasons: survival foods if they are lost in the wilderness, a source of free food and culinary exploration, or just plain outdoor fun. But it’s a common mistake to only think about many wild edibles as food sources during the growing season. In fact, there are edible plant sources during the winter, too.
Cattails are one of those plants that can be counted on as a winter edible, which is one reason it is sometimes known as “Supermarket of the Swamp.” Cattails are a great winter edible because they are easy to identify, they occur frequently wherever shallow water is present, and they usually exist in large stands. Their sheer quantity can provide a substantial food source if you really get your butt in a sling in the wild.
The reliable edible part of the cattail in the winter is the plant’s roots (rhizomes), which are a great source of starch and can also be turned into a flour. You may also find the coming season’s growth shoots (corms), which also make an excellent edible, attached to where the rhizomes meet the base of the plant.
To harvest the plant, reach to the plant’s base and dig or pull the rhizomes out of the soil. Cut them from the dry, above-ground stems and wash them thoroughly. At this point you’ll be able to separate the rhizomes, which will be brown and covered with root hairs making them look like an old rope, from the more succulent corms. From here you can do several things:
You can make a flour with the rhizomes: Peel the rhizomes and crush them in a fair amount of cold water to separate the white, starchy goodness from the fibrous portions. Remove the fiber and let the container sit for several hours until the starch settles to the bottom. Pour off the water carefully and strain the starch if you can. From here you can use the pasty starch as a flour immediately or let it dry well for storage. If you dry it for storage, you’ll need to grind it fine, but then it can be used in conjunction with other flours in baking.
You can supplement a soup with the above starch: Follow the same instructions as above, but instead of straining off the starch, heat the water and starch and add any other wild edibles you’ve been able to collect. Staying hydrated in a winter survival situation is very important, and this soup will kill a few survival birds with one stone (hopefully you’ll have a bird to add to the soup, too).
You can eat the corms: The corms may be as small as peas or larger, depending upon where you are and how far along you are in the winter season. Peel or scrub these new shoots and eat them as-is, or you can slice them and cook them. I recommend adding the corms to the above soup if you’re in a survival situation; it will provide warmth, hydration, and starch for energy. But if you’re just eating the corms for an interesting food item on your table, they are tasty cooked in some butter with a sprinkling of salt and thyme!
Sources: “Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America” by Lee Allen Peterson, “Wild Edible Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 natural Foods” by Thomas S. Elias & Peter A. Dykeman.