Edible Wild Landscape: Cossack Asparagus

You don’t have to travel to the steppes of Russia to find this wild edible plant. “Cossack asparagus” is another name for the common cattail, sometimes called bulrush. There are probably very few people who don’t know what a cattail is or what it looks like. When mature, the cattail is
easily recognized by its brown “hot dog on a stick” appearance.

Technically, male and female cattail blossoms are flowers, but extremely small. When they open, the tiny female flowers are greenish but before long they turn into the familiar brown cylinder. Male flowers don’t hang around very long. They grow on a yellow spike that juts out of the top of the brown cylinder, and when their pollen is ripe, it drops on the female flowers below. Then the male flowers fall off, leaving the familiar hot dog-on-a-stick.

There are even fewer people who know that the common cattail has many edible and medicinal parts. Almost every edible part can be harvested from late spring, through summer, and into early fall. Euell Gibbons in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus called it the “Supermarket of the  Swamps.” The cattail, a member of the grass family, is so versatile it can be used raw in salads, as a cooked vegetable, ground into flour, pickled, and as a substitute for potatoes.

Dense stands of cattails are found from the artic to the tropics in shallow water at the low end of farm fields; fo llow railroad tracks, near ponds, lakes, and marshlands. In North America, it is a single genus with three species, all of which are edible: the Common Cattail (Typha latifolia), the Dominican or Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis), and the non-native Narrowleaf Cattail (Typha augustifolia). If you plan on gathering some cattails, put your boots on since it’s a muddy and messy business. You don’t need to worry about harming the plant by pulling it up since the  colony grows from a system of branching, underground rhizomes. If you wish to do some culinary experiments with cattails, avoid those growing in areas exposed to pollution from traffic or chemical runoff.

Young cattail shoots resemble the non-poisonous sweet flag (Acorus calamus), the poisonous wild flag (Iris spp.), and the poisonous daffodil (Narcissus spp.). They are similar in appearance to the cattail but the distinctive fruiting spikes are absent. None of the look-a-likes grow more than a couple of feet tall, so by mid-spring, the much larger cattail becomes unmistakable.

In the early spring when the plants are 4 to 16 inches tall, young shoots (rounded flower stems, not the leaves) can be easily pulled from the rootstocks. Peeling off the leaves reveals a tender white core. These can be eaten raw or in a salad and taste like mild, raw cucumbers. They can also be sliced and sautéed in a little butter for a delightful side dish. The young shoots can be gathered, peeled, boiled, and pickled in hot vinegar. They may also be blanched and frozen for use during the winter. Be aware that while collecting the shoots your hands will end up with a sticky,
mucilaginous jelly. The Indians applied this jelly to wounds, sores, boils, external inflammation, and to soothe pain.

As the stalks reach about 2 to 3 feet tall, they can still be harvested and peeled to remove the tough, woody outer layer. When the peeled, white inner stalks are steamed, they taste similar to cabbage.The Russians have a fondness for the steamed stalks thus the name “Cossack asparagus.” The shoots provide beta-carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C.

In late spring and early summer, the young bloom spikes (flowers) emerge that will later form the brown, fuzzy cattail head, popular in dried flower arrangements. The young bloom spikes, found in the center of the plant, form little enclosed cylindrical packages that can be detected only when you’re close to the plant. The young blooms, about 8 to 12 inches long, are about the diameter of your little finger, and enclosed in a papery sheath. Peel back the papery sheath (leaves), as you would shuck corn, and you will find both the male portion at the tip and the female portion lower down. These “cob” spikes inside the papery sheath are what you eat.

You want to eat the male portions of the immature, green, flower head. You can discard the small female portion. Steam these spikes about 7-10 minutes, roll in butter and salt, and nibble the buds off the hard central core. The taste is reminiscent of corn (a distant relative) and asparagus. The flowers have a very dry texture and are almost unpalatable when cold. After cooking, it’s easier to shave the flower buds off the woody core and add some salt and melted butter to keep them warm. I don’t know how to describe the taste except that it’s good. It is a good vegetarian source of protein, unsaturated fat, and calories and also contains beta-carotene and minerals.

The rootstocks or rhizomes are typically ¼ to 1-1/4 inches in diameter and up to 27 inches long. They grow 3 to 8 inches below the soil surface. After digging them, you’ll need to peel the outer spongy layer away to find the white inner core. The edible core is very fibrous and filled with a starchy material. Cut the core into 4-inch pieces and allow them to dry for a day or two. You can then rub off enough “cattail flour” to add it to a biscuit mix for flavor. Unless you’re starving, I can’t recommend going to the time and trouble of harvesting, peeling, drying, and processing the rhizomes.

Just before the summer solstice, the male blossoms, located above the brown female bloom spike, ripen and produce significant quantities of bright yellow pollen as fine as talcum powder. Cattail pollen beats bee pollen not only in price but also freshness and nutrition. This corn flavored pollen is easily gathered by wading through the cattail marshes and gently bending each bloom spike over and dusting it into a large paper bag or a plastic baggy. Do this during a calm, dry day. Gather only enough fresh pollen for immediate use (about 3-4 cups). Use it as a flour extender for biscuits, breads, and cakes. Since the pollen doesn’t rise, a rule of thumb is to mix it with about two or three times the amount of flour in a given recipe. Follow the recipe for your favorite pancake mix, except replace one-third of the pancake flour with the cattail pollen. The pancakes will have a golden color when cooked and an excellent flavor. You can also eat the pollen raw, sprinkled on yogurt, oatmeal, and salads.

One of the uses for cattail leaves is rush seating. The rushes are usually gathered in midsummer when the plants are fully mature, and carefully dried in the open air to prevent molding. They can then be bundled and stored. The dried rushes need to be soaked before using to make them pliable. Archeologists have excavated cattail mats over 10,000 years old from a Nevada cave. The Internet has plenty of information on rush weaving.

Using Stone For The Bones Of The Garden

Harmony in the garden is created when there’s balance. In Eastern Philosophy it is the gentle balance of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are basically two energies. Yin is the dark, passive, grounding, and a cooler energy. Yang is the light, active, and warmer energy. Notice how the most harmonious gardens will contain a balance of stone, plants, architecture (something man-made), and water (though real water can sometimes be ‘mimicked’ successfully). Occasionally this balance is so subtle, soothing, and perfectly natural, that you may not notice… Bravo!! This is a job well done by the garden designer.

When I see the natural and asymmetrical use of stone in the garden, I’m immediately reminded of how Asian gardens have influenced our western gardens. So often in our Western culture, we naturally want to fill up the space with plants, plants, and more plants. Sure, I’ve been guilty of this too…being a plant addict. But we must remind ourselves of the balance and leave room for stone, water, a dash of architecture, and some ‘space’.

The stone adds structure, grounding, coolness, strength, and mystery of the ancient. Plants soften the edges; add life and light, and sometimes movement when the element of wind is introduced. Water brings animation and the dynamics of activity, an affirmation that your garden is alive! The touch of architecture reminds us of our creativity (though it might be very geometric) and connection to the natural world; an art form created by our hands using Mother Nature’s elements.

We can use stone in a variety of ways in our landscape. Not only is it decorative, it’s highly functional. Stone can be used to create walkways, patios, walls, terracing, architecture, water features, or decorative accents for balance. Stone is available in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Let’s first discuss the different types most commonly available in our area and a few terms you will run across:

  • Field Stone (typically Tennessee or Pennsylvania) – is an aged sandstone rock that is gray to tannish in color. It’s also from the surface, giving it more of an aged and weathered appearance. Its surface is typically more uneven than a flagstone. It can be used for walls, steps, and stack. Thicker fieldstone works well for water features.
  • Flag stone (bluff rock) – is also a sandstone rock that is quarried from sheets of sedimentary layers of rock. Flagstone, in contrast to fieldstone, is
    usually warmer earth tones such as yellow ochre or terra cotta). It has a much smoother surface than fieldstone. It’s often used for dry stacking of barrier walls to sidewalks, pavers, etc. Pavers can be “soft set” (no mortar) or set using mortar.
  • Stack stone – This can be a field or flagstone. It ranges from thick, medium, to thin (veneer) in thickness. The thin pieces are approximately 1 inch thick, medium 1.5 to 2 inches, and thick is 2 to 3 inches. A stack stonewall can be a dry stack (no mortar) or a mortar stack. Boulders- this includes a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and patinas. My favorite is mossy basket boulders. These are somewhat rounded, smoother than a fieldstone, with a natural moss patina on them. They work well around natural looking water features and dry creek beds.
  • River rock – has rounded edges and surface smoothed by the water. It comes in two shapes “rounds” and “flats”. It’s in a variety of sizes from “egg” size on up to basketball size. It has a variety of uses from dry creek beds, to walls, and step stones (for flatter stones and can be sunk into the ground).
  • Cobbles, rubble, and “brick”- are used for stack walls, paths, borders and typically uniform in shape and size making it easy for  installation. The bricks are typically long narrow pieces made from flagstone (used as borders, edging, step risers, walls).
  • Aggregates (gravel) and sand – this would include the smaller stones and chips such as pea gravel, marble chips, granite chips, slate chips, Alabama rose stone which can be used in walkways or between pavers. This also includes crushed granite sand, which is typically used for dry laid (soft set) stone.
  • Natural shape vs. rectangular (geometric) cut- more often you will find flag stone in a natural irregular shape. However, it can also be purchased in precut rectangular shapes, which works well when laying a patio that is of a rectangular shape. Precut also works well when laying steps or stair treads that are of a consistent size and more formal in appearance.
  • Tumbled- typically cobbles (sometimes flagstone) are tumbled in a machine to smooth the edges.

Because it takes years to become a skilled stone mason and a well trained eye to place stone in the landscape, you may want to consult with a professional first and take careful notes as they install your project for you. Or perhaps you can take on a smaller project such as a small terrace, a small soft-set patio, or a small water feature. If you are a Do-It-Yourselfer, here are some general guidelines to follow when using stone in your landscape:

  • When building stack stone terraces, angle the wall slightly so it leans towards the slope you’re terracing. And always be sure to have proper drainage installed at the base of the wall/terrace (you will probably want to consult with a landscape architect and a stone mason when building large walls, terraces, and other structures).
  • Using fewer but larger rocks in a water feature and as decorative accents is much more appealing and natural looking than a lot of little stones.
  • Boulders typically look bigger at the stone yard…so pre measure the space at home to be sure of the size at the time of purchase.
  • When setting large boulders, partially submerse the stone into the earth. They are best when laid into a slope. Don’t lay them on top of the ground as if it fell off of the truck.
  • Typically groupings of 1 or 3 boulders look best. In Japanese gardens, a grouping of 3 boulders represents the Buddha stone (Mida buhtsu- the male stone), the Goddess stone (Kwannon- the female stone), Child’s stone (Seishi). These 3 stones are of 3 different heights. The first, tallest, being a vertical looking stone and the others being progressively smaller and horizontal.

  • Since stone is available in so many colors, be sure it blends with the colors and materials of your home.
  • Avoid laying large boulders at a 90-degree angle perpendicular towards the house or other structures. This is visually unsettling (and a major Feng Shui faux pas!). Rather, lay the boulders parallel or at a slight angle towards the home or structure.
  • Stick to the same color scheme of rock. You can successfully use 2 different types of rock if they are in the same color pallet.
  • Straight lines and symmetrical layout will yield a formal appearance. Use sweeping curves (no squiggles) and asymmetry for a more natural appearance.
  • If laying pavers in a natural area around tree roots, use “soft set” pavers (no mortar). This is a permeable surface that will allow the earth to absorb water. A thin layer (about 1 to 2 inches) of crushed granite sand is evenly spread over the area and the pavers are set on top. Then overlay (by sweeping) more crushed granite sand (or soil if planting a ground cover between pavers) between the pavers.
  • If unsure about “where” and “how” to add your decorative stone accents, look to nature for ideas. Go on a hike in the mountains and look at natural formations…Mother Nature is exquisite!

Stone is in the garden for a lifetime…it is ageless. You don’t have to water or prune it, insects don’t eat it, doesn’t lose its color in winter, and it stays the same size and in the same place year after year. Enjoy the new bones of your garden!

Overwintering Tropical Water Lilies

The beautiful water lilies that graced your pond with blooms this summer need special care this winter. They are tropical in origin and will not
become dormant to survive our winters unless you live in Zones 9 or 10. There are several methods for over-wintering these plants. One will be  just right for you!

The key to successful over-wintering is the following: It is extremely important not to place the water lily into the pond before Mother Nature
is ready for it. This means DO NOT place the plant into the pond before the water temperature is at least 70 degrees F even if the air temperature is high! Cold water will bring about the demise of the plant and negate your hard work and patience.

The simplest and most successful way to insure survival of these tropical plants is storage in a greenhouse. There they will over-winter nicely in a tub or other container. The object is just survival not plant growth, so container size is not crucial. Provide only 10% to 20% of the space that you
allotted to the plants in your pond. Do not fertilize them. Next year, when the minimum water temperatures reach 70 degrees F, it will be safe to repot and replace the water lilies into you pond.

Very small plants may be over-wintered in an aquarium. For this method, a viviparous lily (one that makes new plantlets at the leaf node) works best. The goal with this method is to keep your lily alive without too much growth.

The small new plantlet should be separated from the parent plant no later than the middle of October. Use a 4” or 6” plastic pot without drainage holes or plug the holes on the ones you already have. Pot the plantlet into it. Place the potted lily into a 20 gallon or larger aquarium. Place a fluorescent grow light over the top of the tank. This must be placed as close as possible to the tank top. The aquarium water will need to be kept warm with a heater. Water temperature should be 70 to 75 degrees. Too high temperatures will encourage too much plant growth and too low temperatures will result in an unthrifty plant for the spring season. When spring arrives and the water temperatures are 70 to 75 degrees, the plant may be potted into a 10 quart or larger container and set into the pond for you to enjoy.

Not everyone has access to a greenhouse or an aquarium, if this is a problem for you, another method is available. This technique is used by plant propagators. It will work because of the lifecycle of the tropical lily in its native habitat. Around the end of September which is the end of the growing season for lilies in our zone, skip the last fertilization. The plant will become stressed (hungry). This stress results in a tuber. Allow the plant to remain in the pond until all the leaves are dead. This is a process that may take several frosts to accomplish. Now search under the crown of the plant for a hard tuber. Successful storage of our lily depends on finding this hard tuber.

There may be a very large tuber about the size of a baseball or a very small one about the size of an acorn. There may also be several small tubers growing around the larger one. The smaller tubers are more likely to produce good plants next spring than the larger ones.

Let the tuber air-dry for a few days if it still has root or stem tissue attached to it. A callus will have formed to protect the tuber from dehydration. The debris will snap clean from the tuber. Wash the tuber and place it into a jar or plastic bag filled with distilled water and then store it in a cool,  dark place. The temperature should be around 50 to 65 degrees F.

Check the container each month. If the water is discolored or foul smelling, replace it with fresh distilled water. If you used a hard tuber and took care to clean it properly, it should survive the winter.

A Bit of Dirt – Fall 2008

The full pdf copy of this edition is available here.

PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE – by John Atkinson

Where do we go from here? What do we do with this gift? First: Let me say “thank you” for a remarkable year! My commitment to Gwinnett County Master Gardeners will continue, but it is time for me to “move ahead” to a different area of service. We have a new crew coming in that will keep the boat afloat and steer us on a course that will move us in new directions.

We have a bank of talent in our current membership. Help your leadership tap into your interests and talents. Try something new! This may be your year to take the opportunity you had put aside. Master Gardeners are especially equipped and motivated to train and share their skills with their neighbors about plants and growing things. They can work with youth and elderly in gardening projects that will continue for years.

Gardening and growing things has not changed, but it has been modified by increasing and improving knowledge and scientific research. Research in state university programs gives us insight into things we thought were known, but only suspected before. As we are provided with new research we perfect our plant knowledge and gardening skills.

Learn to listen. Part of teaching is learning. We all learn by listening and doing. We have so much to learn and so little time.

Most folks who “Ask a Master Gardener” simply want to be heard. “I have a question. What do you think?” The solution often not a perfect  response, but often a reverse question: Tell me about your situation; “What do you think?”

Listening is an active skill. It is not simply the other person’s turn to talk. We need to connect with that conversation by anticipating what’s next. Get on the level with the person who is speaking. Develop your listening skills by thinking of a response that will encourage the other party to keep talking.

Finally, let’s learn the language. Learning the common names of plants is not easy, but sometimes two different plants can have the same name in
different regions. (How many plants are known as “spurge”?) Using scientific names adds authority to your speaking. Whoever said Latin is a dead language has not spent time in horticulture. Make friends with your garden one name at a time. There is a certain rhythm and melody to the botanical names of plants.

Other articles in this issue:
Overwintering Tropical Water Lilies – By Marlene Gillman
Using Stone For The Bones Of The Garden – By Shannon Pable
Edible Wild Landscape: Cossack Asparagus – By Dan Willis