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Cattails: The Corndogs of Our Waterways

Driving down the road, you spot corndogs swaying in the tall grass. Take a second look. Is there a carnival nearby? You quickly realize that can’t be the case. Corndogs don’t grow out of the ground. But you may not realize that you are looking at a different tasty treat.

A group of cattails under a bright blue sky.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

These plants, commonly called cattails, grow near (and even in) water. Can you imagine a clowder (group) of cats stalking through the leaves, tails held high at attention as they hunt for fish?


You can eat every part of cattails, from their tip all the way to their roots. The trick is knowing what to eat and how. Never eat a plant without first checking with a knowledgeable grownup.


Let’s take a closer look at cattails from top to bottom.


Spike


What part of the cattail is the brown corndog? The flowers! The lower, wider part is covered with the female flowers. Female flowers have ovaries where seeds will form. A long, thin spike grows from the top, like a roasting stick. Look closely to see tiny flowers covering the spike too — the male flowers. Male flowers hold the pollen. Both sets of flowers show in spring, one set on top of the other with a little gap in between. Pollen from the male flowers needs to get to the female flowers so seeds can form.

 

Words to know

Rhizome: A continuously growing underground stem.

Plunge: To push or thrust quickly.

Slather: To spread or smear a substance thickly or liberally.

 

You can also enjoy pollen as the first tasty treat. Mix it with flour to add a protein-rich, nutty flavor to baked goods like pancakes or muffins.


Or you can boil the early green female flowers right on the stem and eat like corn on the cob. Slather with butter for another favorite carnival treat.


Stem


Stems of plants work like straws, bringing needed water from the roots to all the other parts of the plant. Do you like cucumbers? Then you might enjoy a snack of cattail stems. Break off a piece and peel the outer layer like a banana. The middle can be eaten raw or boiled. Yummy cucumber crunch!


Leaves

A muskrat eating a cattail at the water's edge.
A muskrat eating a cattail. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Leaves wrap around the stem in layers. Eat young leaves in salads or on sandwiches instead of lettuce or other greens. As you detach a leaf from the stem, you may notice some goo oozing out. Don’t try that gel as a salad dressing or sandwich spread. Instead, use it like aloe vera. Rub it on your sunburn or scrapes for cooling relief.


Those are all the parts of the cattail plant we can see. But we’re not finished snacking yet. Plunge your hands below the surface for a final treat.


Rhizome


Feel for a sideways, underground stem. That’s the rhizome. Roots grow from the bottom and shoots (new plants) pop up from the top. A chunk of rhizome looks like a baked potato – dark skin on the outside and white on the inside. Boil, bake or broil like a potato for a carbohydrate-filled treat. Rhizome fries, anyone? Grind dried rhizomes into flour. What will you bake first?


So, cattails aren’t corndogs after all. But maybe they are even better! From top to bottom, cattails provide so much nutrition, like protein and carbohydrates. You get a whole buffet of edible options from just one plant!


Know before you try


If you decide to give cattails a try, make sure you have permission to pick them. Plants in forest preserves are protected. Picking them breaks the rules.


Cattails grow in bodies of water. Once you know you have permission, look for clean, unpolluted water. When the straw of the stem sucks up the water, it also sucks up pollutants. This is such a great adaptation for cleaning up waterways, but those pollutants are not healthy for us to eat.


And always, always, always check with an adult plant expert before tasting any plant. Lookalikes may not be safe to eat. Even edible plants need to be eaten at the right time. And some plants may have some edible parts, but not others. Enjoy adventurous eating, but safely.

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