Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ever Eat a Pine Tree?

Naturalist Ellen Rathbone wrote a wonderful post for Adirondack Almanack this week on a topic dear to my heart, cattails. She brought back some memories that gave me a laugh. If you’ve ever been in a cattail fight, it’s a plant you’ll always love. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure—and you pretty much need to be under 16 for this—take a dry, mature, fluffy cattail seedhead. Now wallop your friend with it. Hilarious.

Growing up a nature nut in the 60s, of course I read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Euell was the butt of many a joke on late-night TV, but I’m sure he laughed all the way to the bank. I loved him. I tried a few of his recipes, persimmon bread, grape vine salad, sassafras leaves, and sassafras tea. The cattail recipes were intriguing, and I was fortunate enough to have a small area of cattails near my home. It was spring, so I gathered some of the young, hard green “tails”—Rathbone explains that these are the male flowers of the plant—and boiled them. With a little butter and salt, they were like corn on the cob as promised, though they tasted more like zucchini.

Later that day my hands and feet began to swell. It hurt to walk or hold a pen. The next morning it was worse, so Mom got me an appointment with the pediatrician. It’s tough for a teenager to go to a pediatrician’s office for any reason of course, but it got worse. The first thing the doc asked me was, “Have you eaten anything unusual recently?” Now I was really humiliated. I lamely explained about Euell and the cattails. As you botany folks have already guessed, male flowers of the cattail are 100% pollen and I was having an allergic reaction. My family has never quit laughing.

I still had a few chapters of Stalking the Wild Asparagus to cook through, but it seems I’d run out of goodwill in the kitchen. I had to make due with Grape-Nuts. They taste like “wild hickory nuts” you know.

Thanks to my Flickr friend Ken Spencer for his great photo of cattails!


  1. Imagine my surprise this morning when I opened your blog to read it and found myself quoted!

    Yeah, families are funny that way - will gladly remind us (often in public or in front of our friends) of embarrassing situations. Somethings never die.

    I also read in "Wildman" Steve Brill's book that the cattail down used to be used to stuff pillows. He did it and had a terribly allergic reaction. Figuring it was just him, he gave the pillow to his girlfriend, who developed hives as well. It turns out that if one is going to make such a pillow, one needs to line it really well with batting so that there is a good thick layer between the fluff and your skin.

    I'm enjoying your blog.

  2. Thanks Ellen! No wonder my friend complained bitterly after that cattail fight! I enjoy yours too, though I'm jealous of your weather. Thanks for adding to the story!