Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, at this time of year the most dramatic plants in the Everglades in Coldfall Wood are the bulrushes. They sway in the wind, their dried leaves susurrating as if they are whispering to one another and, when the water level is as high as it currently is, they add an otherworldly air, as if they are relicts of a drowned world.
In the UK, the bulrush is also known as common reed mace, but the plant has a very wide native distribution, from Africa and Asia through to North America. It is not, however, the plant that the cradle of the baby Moses was found in – this is most likely to have been the paper reed (Cyperus papyrus).The bulrush is an ‘obligate’ wetland species, which means that it is always found alongside water, though it prefers the depth to be no greater than 2.6 feet. It is also fond of water with high levels of nutrients, which means that it does very well in places where there is run-off from roads and farms, and can be used for bio-remediation in polluted areas.
The flowerheads of the bulrush are so familiar that it takes a moment to realise how extraordinary they are. The female flowers are the fat, cigar-shaped objects that sit around for months and finally erupt into a mass of fluffy seeds. The male flowers form a lighter-coloured pyramid on top of the female flowers – in the photo above, you can see the spikes on the plants to the left where the male flowers have already gone. The photo below shows both male and female flowers – male flowers are ‘staminate’, female flowers are ‘pistillate’.
In the UK, bulrushes have not been used for medicinal or culinary purposes, or indeed for anything much at all except for adding a touch of drama to flower arrangements (or at least, this is all I could discover – feel free to put me right!) In North America, however, the plant (known there as reedmace or cattail) was much more widely used. A quick look at the Plant Lives entry on Typha latifolia reveals the following ways that the plant facilitated daily life:
- It was used ceremonially in both rain and sun dances by different Native American tribes
- The root was used to caulk canoes
- The leaves were used to make winter roofing that kept out both rain and snow
- Many tribes used the leaves to weave baskets
- Everything from raincoats to skirts was also made from the leaves
- The down from the female flowers was used to stuff pillows
- The down was also used as a weapon by the Chippewa tribe, in the belief that it would blind enemies if it was thrown into their faces
- The roots were ground and eaten by many tribes, and the first European settlers to North America were introduced to this food by the Native Americans that they met
- The male pollen was made into porridge and flour, and formed part of the staple diet of the Dakota and Chippewa tribes
- Young shoots and stems were also eaten
- Medicinally, it was used as a medicine for horses by the Iroquois, and was very widely used for human skin diseases.
Not bad for one plant! In fact, ‘Backwoods Home’, a North American website on self-sufficiency, describes Typha latifolia as ‘the super Wal-Mart of the swamp’. Anyone trying to survive on their wits in the wilderness would be well advised to keep an eye open for a patch of bulrushes, because, as the author of the piece above states, the plant provides food during any season, whether via its roots, its shoots (known as ‘Cossack asparagus’ because they were much favoured as wild food in Russia) or the young male flowerhead which can apparently be eaten like corn on the cob.
What intrigues me a little is how in the UK we seem to have ignored such a useful plant. Maybe there were other plants that could fill the same needs, without any wading into bogs and streams. Who knows. What I do know is that I will be looking at it with a new-found enthusiasm and respect though, growing where it does, I doubt that I will be paddling out to see what its roots taste like any time soon.
Photo One – By Marshman at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2692834
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer