Reedmace – Identification, edibility and distribution

Typha Latifolia

AKA Greater Reedmace, Cattails (US) or widely referred to as bulrush, though this is botanically inaccurate and actually a completely different species. Lesser Reedmace (Typha Angustifolia) shares many characteristics, but tends to be less worthwhile.

reedmace sunset

  • Edibility – 4/5 – Shoot hearts (4/5), roots (2/5) and pollen (3/5)
  • Identification – 3/5 – beware of flag irises – see below
  • Distribution – 3/5 – harvest roots sensitively
  • Season – shoots spring, roots autumn to early spring, pollen from early June
  • Habitat – Loch sides, ponds, slow-flowing rivers, canals, permanently saturated ground. Do not eat those growing in stagnant/polluted water.

Related pages: reedmace flour, wild food recipes.

Spring for foragers starts a good bit earlier than the first daffodils. This year mine started in about the second week of February when I picked my first reedmace shoots of the year. Admittedly they were barely out of the semi-frozen mud, but were an indisputable sign that nature had registered the lengthening days and was starting its years work. Nearby, some very deadly hemlock water-dropwort was also rousing, spreading a small bush of delicate green fronds above the water. I was delighted to see it too – foraging would be so boring if everything was edible!

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised to find the reedmace shoots. My slightly-hungover-Sunday mission had been to harvest the rhizomes which are a great source of starch right through the winter, but as I yanked my first one from the mud it had a tender four inch spike sprouting from the end, white and fresh from its journey through the dark sediment. I performed the same ritual as I do with my first cep of the autumn and ate it on the spot – welly-deep in sucking mud!

Reedmace rhizomes with young shoots

Reedmace is a foragers dream as it is  one of the few wild plants that provide food all year long and is easily identified by its distinctive chocolate-brown cigar shaped seed heads, which persist throughout the winter. They grow in shallow loch sides, saturated ground and slow flowing water. Although reedmace is quite common and locally abundant, the habitats it grows in (and creates) can be quite fragile so harvesting should be done sensitively and you should have the landowners permission if you plan to uproot them. Having said that, their creeping rhizomes can be a nuisance – choking waterways and drainage channels, so many people will thanks you for sensitively thinning them.

Reedmace growing on Carlingwark Loch, December

At their best from autumn through to early spring, reedmace roots – or more accurately, rhizomes – grow like thick, bearded ropes down in the mud. Harvesting them is a messy but enjoyable business so long as you are wearing long wellies and short sleeves as it normally involves guddling about in squelchy loch sides up to your elbows in sludge! I have had many a welly overflow and jacket besmurched in the process.The technique I recommend is to follow the distinctive flower spike down with your hands into the water (this ensures you don’t mistakenly get a flag iris which aren’t good for you) then work the mud around the root with your hands until its more like cold gravy than ice cream. Eventually you will be in a position to yank the whole root, or a good portion thereof, out of the soup. If it is early spring and you are fortunate, it may have a tender young shoot on the end like the ones pictured above.

The roots can be eaten raw, roasted like yams (a great carbohydrate hit to go with your spring greens), or made into a  flour, a process that that will unite you with foragers down the ages – from mesolithic hunter-gatherers to aborigines today. Click here for instructions on how to make it.

Washed and peeled reedmace rhizomes

Later in spring and into early summer, the shoots will be much more apparent above water level and make excellent eating. Once washed and divested of any brown outer leaves and tougher green leaves to expose the pale green core, they make a tasty reward for your energetic wallowing! They have a mild, grassy taste and a lovely texture that manages to be crunchy and succulent at the same time – not unlike good asparagus. The rhizomes themselves are less appealing, but make up for in nourishment what they lack in flavour.

Be very careful that you don’t mistake yellow flag iris shoots for reedmace shoots. They share the same habitat, are very common (at least in W Scotland) and will burn your mouth. The key difference is the flatter profile of flag iris. At the base reedmace is always more or less circular in cross section, while flag iris is always oval. Flag iris also tapers to a finer point than reedmace, but you may have to attune yourself for a while before this becomes noticeable at a glance.

Yellow flag iris (toxic) Left v Reedmace Right

As spring progresses, the shoots will grow rapidly – reedmace can grow to over 5 feet tall. They continue to make good eating until the woody stem of the flower spike starts to develop inside them. Steamed, stir-fried or sliced thinly through salads, they are a delicious, nutritious and versatile wild food. I have read that their flavour resembles palm hearts, but never having tried palm heart I can’t comment! They work wonderfully well in my wild dashi broth.

Succulent reedmace shoots

The cigar-like flower spikes of reedmace can be eaten whole while still still young and green. In early summer, the top male section swells and produces pollen which is highly nutritious and can be used in place of flour for baking – or just eaten pondside as a sweet treat on a warm day. The best method to gather it is by putting a plastic bag (or a specially prepared 2 litre plastic milk container with a hole cut in it) over the flower and knocking off the pollen.

Pollen-laden male flower heads above the velvety female section

The pollen is easily dislodged by gusts of wind!

If that isn’t enough uses for reedmace for you, it is also possible to stuff pillows with the fine downy spores that develop in the cigar-like mature female flower heads! Kids of all ages will love the way they magically erupt when you rupture the velvety exterior. You would need quite a few for a comfy pillow though!

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1 Comment

  • Hi you should get together with my friends in D & G on their Frugaldom blog site etc.

    PS love this, but still too frightened about picking wrong item, I have noticed what I though was Bulrushes, but are they? I always question myself

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