Forager Sylvain Cormier shares his knowledge
by Allison Cooke
Cattails are one of the most amazing survival foods, no matter what the season, and have been referred to as the supermarket of the wild because every part of them is edible. They are easy to identify, easy to harvest, they are rich in starches and carbs and they are delicious. Our ecosystem depends heavily upon them because they help stabilize riverbanks and stop erosion, and insects and animals use them for shelter and nesting sites.
Cattails are easy to find and identify. You likely will not have to stray very far from your own backyard. Part of the fun in harvesting your own food is connecting with nature—and for cattails, you will want to head out to the woods after a couple of dry days when the ground is not very muddy. You will find cattails growing in slow flowing and still, swampy waters—but one of their many positive benefits is to provide a cleaning service and filter out the toxins from these waters. It is because of this that I recommend you try to harvest cattails near fresh water supplies, especially if you are planning to eat them raw, just to be on the safe side.
The stands are long and white, and the plants that look just like a hot dog on a stick, sometimes broken and fuzzy. Just be aware if you have spring allergies, the fluff can trigger them! When you spot the cattails, find the biggest shoots and either pull it straight up, or simply cut the fresh tips of the plant. There may be a jelly that makes your hands a little sticky from harvesting cattails, but this jelly can also be collected and used as an alternative to thickening soups.
You now know how to find them, but are probably curious which parts of the cattail are edible, and the answer is simple: all of it, from the roots underwater to the top of the plant. This time of year you are going to eat the stalks, stems and shoots—which taste like a delicious hybrid of zucchini and cucumber and are great in salads, soups, stir frys or even eaten raw. Just start at the stem and peel away the layers until you find the centre. Also at this time of year, the flower spikes, if harvested while they are still green, can be boiled for a few minutes and eaten as an alternative to corn on the cob. Even the plants pollen can be turned into flour that is high in protein and can make delicious pancakes!
It is important to keep PEI as sustainable as possible, and because cattails are so helpful to our eco system, it shouldn’t suffer because of too much harvesting. Also, because wetlands are fragile, and often used as nesting sites—you don’t want to be stomping around unknowingly in your rubber boots. Make sure you are aware of where and when you are collecting, and don’t get greedy when you are harvesting!
This spring, instead of searching the stores for something unique to cook for dinner, head out into the woods and pick your own delicious side dish. The benefits of harvesting, preparing and cooking your own fresh foods will be well worth the adventure.
Sylvain Cormier is a local forager, and the owner of Everything Wild, a Business that promotes unique and wild edibles on Prince Edward Island. It is his top priority to encourage eating locally, and appreciating the food we have growing in our backyards.
We are delighted to have Sylvain and Allison join The Buzz team to present the fascinating subject of foraging for food. But please remember—there are risks, possibly serious, to eating anything that you are not one hundred per cent sure is safe to eat. When in doubt, don’t. Or contact Sylvain.