Bog Beings: Wild Cranberry and Cattails
Every October for the last three years, my sweetheart takes me to a bog where there are wild cranberries. We pick about a gallon for the season on this one outing, leaving cranberries for other travelers. Similar to mushroom hunters, cranberry foragers tend to keep closed lipped on specific locations. I would like to think this is because we are (I am) protecting the wetland from being overrun with heavy feet. It’s not like this place is a total secret. We are out in the open, and when a passerby came and asked what we were doing, Will responded, “picking cranberries.” The person didn’t seem to know what to make of that information and went about their business. As we picked, Will pointed out tree saplings who had grabbed a roothold in more stable areas and said that eventually this bog will be lost to the forest growing up around it. It’s just part of succession. A cranberry bog is a type of freshwater wetland that accumulates decaying plant matter on which living plants can grow. Without human hand or beaver paw, bogs eventually grow into forests.
Cranberry, also called fenberry, lowbush cranberry, large cranberry, American cranberry, and bearberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is a North American native short trailing shrub in Ericaceae, the Heather or Heath family. Flowers form on thin wiry stems. Each flower has 4 recurved white petals of pink hue. Small green elliptical leaves turn red in the fall as do the berries. This little shrub grows only up to 1 foot tall. Tart and rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, cranberries have quite a following and there is a robust industry with several commercial cranberry bogs in eastern MA. Cranberries can be harvested September through November.
Similar to other berries I gather, I keep cranberries in the freezer until I am ready to use them. My father has fun making a cranberry chutney for Thanksgiving. I will chop up a cup to add to breakfast muffins or throw a handful into my breakfast shake in the winter for an added burst of WAKE-UP flavor.
Bog cranberries are not to be confused with highbush cranberries, Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum Aiton (formerly known as Viburnum trilobum), which are not actually cranberries but an edible viburnum in Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckle family, also native to North America. Cranberry viburnum berries are also edible, ripen in the fall, and taste similar to lowbush cranberries. So, if you find yourself on the edge of a moist thicket or forest instead of a wetland, look for drupes of bright red berries on a mid-size gray-barked shrub possessing a dense rounded form. Being a member of Caprifoliaceae, branching is opposite. Green maple-like leaves turn hues of yellow to red-purple in autumn. Quite a pretty shrub and I remember a row of them growing along a backroad for years before, for whatever reason, the homeowner cut down this free food source. Though there are several edible red berries out there in the outside, be sure you have properly identified these cranberries and if you hit the jackpot on cranberry viburnum, pick and use similarly as bog cranberries.
A year-round edible: the Cattail
Cattail, Typha latifolia, also known as broadleaf cattail, bulrush, cat-o’-nine-tails, and great reedmace in Typhaceae, the Cattail family, is a native perennial herbaceous plant with elongate, grass-like leaves who grows in wetlands. The leaves form a tall tight fan and I enjoy pulling out the new young shoots from the center to munch on them as I am traversing the swamp. Please be aware that irises, several of which grow in wetlands as well, look similar in blade structure but are toxic to humans. Look for stalks with brown cylindrical seedheads in the fall to get to know a patch of cattails.
Cattails have a slender, cylindrical inflorescence that are divided into two sections: the thin yellow pollen-bearing flowers on top and the seed-bearing flowers on the bottom. In the spring you can harvest the pollen by patting at the top of the stalk into a bag. Pollen is a nutritive flour amendment for all baked goods. You can also cut the immature bottom section of the inflorescence – which is green in the spring – and steam them like corn-on-the-cob. No, I don’t like the cutesy nickname “kitten-on-the-cob” either. As the cattail matures, the green bloom will darken to a rich brown. In the fall this becomes the seed fluff atop the stalks you see in the wetlands. This fluff is a great insulator and absorbent, and birds, insects, and humans alike attest to the warmth this fluff provides.
You got to get wet to get to the root of the matter.
Cattail rhizomes dwell in the muck. Reach down, feel for the finger-size root, start tugging, and then cut these underground stems. Discard the spongy outer yellow-brown layer with root-threads, by cutting through to the white inner core. As the core was protected by the outer layer, you can eat these raw, pickled, cooked, or dried and pulverized into flour. Cattail rhizomes are a good source of starch and they do contain gluten. They can be harvested any time of year but will contain the most starch after the aerial parts of the plant have died back.
Cattail provides not just a year-round pantry but also a medicine cabinet. According to wild edibles expert, Arthur Haines, the mucilaginous juice from the leaf base can be used as an antiseptic and analgesic for cuts and abrasions. Crushed rhizomes can moisturize minor wounds and serve as a cooling dressing for burns. The core can also be boiled in milk for diarrhea or made into a tea to help break down kidney stones. And the pollen, in addition to being rich in protein, fat, fiber, calcium, iron, zinc, fatty acids, and vitamins A and C, an extract can be used to treat heart disease, high cholesterol, irregular menstruation, abdominal pain, and sore throats.
Though cattails are common, please do not over-harvest and only forage from large patches.
Want to sit in the wetland without getting wet while enjoying the fall into winter? Thatch cattail leaves into a thick mat. Happy foraging!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
This article appears in the November 2022 edition of The Ashfield News.
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Bog cranberry resources
Cranberry viburnum resources
Ancestral Plants volume 2 by Arthur Haines