Step Aside Ramps, It's Time for Cat Tails

"They have a cucumber-like flavor with a heart of palm texture."


These may look like leeks but they are cat tails. [Photographs: Penny Cherubino]

Add "cat tails" to the roster of foraged foods like ramps, fiddleheads, morels, and wild garlic, that spring brings to market. Cat tails are also known as, "broadleaf bulrush," common bulrush, broadleaf cattail, common cattail, or cat-o'-nine-tails. One word or two, opinion seems to be divided.

At Boston area farmers' markets Silverbrook Farm's Andy Pollack has been introducing customers to this spring delight. New Englanders learned to use cat tails from the Native Americans. Andy harvests them and was encouraging customers to give them a try. "They have a cucumber-like flavor with a heart of palm texture. You can use them like leeks, about the first ten inches, and you can use them raw. You can saute them, bake them or use them in a stir fry," Andy said.

I was game, tasted some and agreed. They taste a bit like cucumber (fresh and crisp) with maybe some zucchini tossed in.

Silverbrook Farm at Copley Market

cattailsThe US Forest Service says this plant has been called the "Supermarket of the Swamp." Broadleaf cat tails grow throughout the world and traditionally have been used for food, medicine, tools, torches, building material and even toothpaste.

"Broadleaf cattail is entirely edible, and Native Americans utilized broadleaf cattail year-round. Newly emerged sprouts were eaten as a green vegetable in the spring. Flower stalks were boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Broadleaf cattail pollen, which has a nutty flavor and is high in protein, was added to other flours. Rhizomes were dug and eaten in the fall and winter," says the Forest Service website.

Cattails can grow in polluted water, so while I would buy them from Andy, a farmer I've known for years, I hesitated if I didn't know the vendor. I believe you should only accept foraged food from sources you trust.

With the warm spring we've had, cat tails in this stage—when the shoots are tender and edible—have another week or so in Massachusetts but will be around a bit longer in cooler parts of the country.