Enveloped in a rustling, verdant stand of Cape Town cattails (where they are known as bulrushes), their seven-foot-long leaves moving gently above my head, I am kept company by the songs of small brown rush warblers that flit back and forth, alighting on the reeds’ flowers, heavy with pollen, which drifts down as they land. I reach up to snip off another velvety cattail flower-spike and add it to the basket at my feet. My hands are dusted with yellow pollen. It is too heavy to make me sneeze. This is how I catch sunshine, before tilting it into a jar, sealing it before it can escape, and releasing it on winter days that seem forever gray.
Cattail pollen’s warmth lights up a room and its roast-corn aroma smells like summer.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Cattails are species of Typha, a reedy perennial that flourishes where fresh water and land intersect gently. Shy of swift currents, they crowd the edges of ponds and lakes, stopping short of deep water, and knit themselves across seeps and wetlands. The plants are widespread, globally, occurring on almost every continent. In South Africa the native species is T. capensis. In the United States I collect the early summer flowers of common cattail (T. latifolia) and the diminutive, narrow-leafed cattail, T. angustifolia.
They are worth encouraging as a wildlife habitat (and are less dense than dominating Phragmites), and more than worth exploring as a food source—not only for sustenance, but for pleasure.
The flowers of cattails are long and skinny, with a neat division, midway: male at the top, and female below. In late spring, still sheathed in leaves, the flower is a cylinder, green and velvety. As it matures and swells, it emerges from the enclosing leaves. The top, male half gradually opens to erupt with heavy yellow pollen for a couple of weeks in early summer.
When all the pollen is shed the male flower withers and drops, leaving a naked spike. All that is left of the flowers by winter is the dry brown brushy tail, filled with seeds, which puff away like parachutes.
Cattails are a universal and marvelous wild food because the plants are edible, nose-to-tail. While their rhizomes yield a starchy flour (after lengthy processing) as well as juicy, mud-level buds (which require digging and careful washing), and their new leaf-shoots hide a tender heart (you may have heard of Cossack asparagus?), the easiest part of cattails to forage—and possibly the most rewarding to use, in a culinary sense—is its cheerful, flavorful pollen, which can brighten our kitchens months after summer is a memory. A bonus is that collecting the pollen does no damage to the plant or its habitat.
Cattail pollen is in season in early summer when the flowers are still young and just beginning to shed their warm yellow bounty. Raw, the silky pollen tastes like nothing. But when it is heated it is transformed, smelling and tasting richly of roasted fresh corn.
The green flowers can also be eaten before pollen appears. The top, male, part of the flower can be stripped from the stalk and dried, or cooked and eaten fresh. I like it fresh, folded it into griddlecakes, pancakes, or as a crust for pan-cooked fish or topping for a potato gratin. Wait about a week more, and the ripe pollen will have begin drift from the flower heads at the lightest touch.
To collect the pollen one can either bend the whole cattail head and shake it into a paper bag, or use secateurs to cut off the whole flower. At home, lay them out on a baking sheet for a few days to allow the pollen to drop. The rest can be stripped into a strainer and sifted, just like flour, until all that remains is dry chaff, with the delicious pollen collected below. Seal in jar and freeze to keep fresh.
Adding just a spoonful of cattail pollen to bakes adds that distinctive roast corn flavor.
All you have to do is keep it in the freezer (yes, even sunshine lasts this way).
Makes 10 2-inch griddlecakes
Top these versatile and blini-like griddlecakes with a fresh green salsa and a bite of chile. They also lend themselves well to Southeast Asian-style dipping sauces (fish sauce, lime, sugar, chile), and play well with smoked salmon or salmon roe with herb cheese, or with dollops of fragrant curry and yogurt. The recipe doubles very well.
- 1 cup immature male cattail flowers (green), stripped from the stalk
- 1 cup blanched fresh corn kernels
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon chile flakes
- ¼ cup plain yogurt
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 2 Tablespoons butter
Place the cattails, corn flour, baking powder, salt and chile in a bowl. Make a well in the center and add the yogurt and beaten egg. Stir well. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little more yogurt.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and melt some of the butter to coat the bottom. Scoop a spoonful of the thick batter into the pan. Repeat, making sure not to crowd the pan. When some bubbles in the surface of the griddlecakes pop, flip them over and cook the other side until golden, about 4 minutes. Keep warm in a folded napkin. Serve warm. (They freeze well, just reheat in a hot oven or in a toast oven.)
Cattail Pollen Biscuits
Makes about 10 3½-inch biscuits
The fresh-shucked corn flavor of cattail pollen is amplified by baking. The biscuits are as good with butter and maple syrup or thinly sliced ham. You will need 12-16 cattail flowers to collect ¼ cup of pollen.
- 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup cattail pollen
- 1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- 6 oz cold unsalted butter, coarsely grated
- 1 ½ cups buttermilk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 Tablespoon milk
Preheat the oven to 375’F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine. Add the grated butter and use your fingers to rub it into the dry ingredients. Pour in the buttermilk and give the mixture as few swipes with a wooden spoon as possible, before bringing the biscuit dough together with your hands. (The less your work it the more tender they will be.)
Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Press it gently into an even shape 1 ½ inches thick. Use a biscuit cutter (or upturned glass) to press out as many biscuits as possible. Collect the dough scraps and press them together quickly, then cut out a few more biscuits. Place the biscuits on the baking sheet. Mix the egg wash and brush it gently over their tops. Slide into the oven.
Bake until golden-brown, about 20 – 23 minutes. Best eaten at once, but they freeze very well, too.
For more of Marie’s recipes, see:
- Herb Cheese: Make Your Own Boursin-Inspired Labneh
- Summer Solstice Elderflowers (in Cape Town)
- Winter Oyster Mushrooms: A Forageable Succulent Treat
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