Maybe you’re writing a fantasy and your protagonist is searching for dinner in the woods. Or you’re writing a historical and your antagonist has to forage for a meal. Or you’re in desperate need of a walk to clear your cluttered head and you spot a tasty looking plant and wonder if you should put it in your mouth. Sometimes you just need to know what’s edible if you didn’t find it on a Safeway shelf. Today I want to cover a couple of plants you’ll find near water.
This is the versatile cattail, or typha latifolia. It grows in marshes, along rivers and ponds, even in ditches–anywhere it can get plenty of water. It is also the best friend of any foraging character you can invent. Every green part of this plant is edible. Young shoots should be harvested in the early spring and taste like cucumbers. They can even be pickled. When steamed they taste like cabbage. The lower part of the stem where it attaches to the ribosome can be boiled like a potato or added to stews. Later in the season, when the stalks get woodier, just remove the outer bark and boil, stir-fry, or steam. When the pollen spikes (what will become the brown top of the plant late in the season) first emerge, they can be eaten raw or boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Pollen collected from the spikes can be mixed with water and to make dough and you’ve got biscuits, flat bread, or pancakes.
The cattail is great for other uses, too. Weaving the leaves creates mats, sleeping pallets, insulation for a home, capes, hats, and bags. Cattail seed fluff can be used for stuffing pillows and mattresses, diaper filling, or wound dressings. The woody stems can be stripped and woven for making rope. This plant, alone, can mean the difference between life and death for your character.
This plant is called cow parsnip, of heracleum lanatum. Don’t confuse this with water hemlock! Actually, that’d be a great plot point–who could prove if the death-by-poison was intention or unintentional? Cow parsnip is edible, although take care in harvesting this one. Some people, especially those who are photosensitive, will have an adverse reaction to touching this plant (either a dark discoloration of the skin, sensitivity, pain, or a rash. The skin discoloration can take up to a year to fade). The best time to eat cow parsnip is before the plant flowers. Peel off the outer layers or the stalk (wear gloves), then boil or stir-fry. I hear it tastes similar to celery. The upper part of the stalk has the strongest, sweetest flavor, and the closer to the base of the plant, the more bitter it will become. Sometimes boiling the lower parts multiple times (changing the water each time) will leech out the bitterness.
Like the cattail, cow parsnip also has other uses. The dried stems can be used as drinking straws. The roots can be used to make a yellow dye or as toothache relief (applied directly to gums). Tea made from dried leaves is useful for nausea, acid indigestion, and heartburn. (Note: I am NOT a physician – don’t try these as home remedies on yourself without a lot of research and contacting someone who is actually trained. This information is provided solely for use in works of fiction.)
If you found this interesting or even mildly useful, please comment below. I plan on continuing this “edible” theme for a while longer unless I hear that ya’ll don’t like it. Thanks!