In Chippewa, ana’kun, bulrush is often neighbor to the similarly highly edible cattail. Across the pond, cattail is called bulrush. Perhaps “bulrush” being used for unrelated plants is one of the reasons scirpus SPP. is an often overlooked edible and medicinal plant here in North America. Or perhaps it’s due to cattail being so similar yet more recognizable.
Bulrush may refer to a few different plants besides the titled and cattail. Another genus that shares the name, schoenoplectus, used to be part of scirpus. It turns out they are not closely related. Other sedges may be referred to as bulrush too. We’re only talking “scirpus” species here. At least our bulrush fruiting pattern is distinctive, which is a great help in IDing.
We have at least 7 of these bulrushes. Our most common may be soft stem (scirpus validus), wool-grass (scirpus cyperinus) and dark-green (scirpus atrovirens). Others listed in Haliburton Flora are hardstem (scirpus acutus), Georgia (scirpus georgianus), panicled (scirpus microcarpus), pendulous (scirpus pendulus) and water (formerly scirpus subterminalis). But water bulrush has been reclassified as schoenoplectus subterminalis.
Edible Uses of Bulrush
Like cattails, bulrushes provide year round food. They are even more palatable than cattail due to their higher sugar content.
Here’s a bullet list of edible parts, that I’ve ordered seasonally:
- Sweet and juicy new shoots and young root stalks – harvest in the spring. They can be peeled and eaten raw, or cooked like any starchy vegetable. Also, young bruised roots and rhizomes boiled for several hours make a sweet syrup / sugar substitute. If you have a knack for not burning candy recipes, this reduced and dried sweet sap can be rolled into balls and stored.
- Pollen – harvest in the summer. Pollen can be added to baked goods or used as a thickening agent.
- Seeds – harvest summer to winter. They can be eaten raw, ground and added to flour perhaps, or used as a thickening agent.
- Newly formed leading tips and new young shoots, and rootstalks – harvest in autumn. You can also remove the cores from the bases of older stalks to eat. Autumn is another great time to collect rootstalks.
- Older roots/rhizomes can be found year round. They can be peeled, chopped and boiled to make a white gruel. Sieve out the fibers and dry, or dry then sieve the gruel for grinding into a flour. Or use the processed gruel fresh, added to your pancake recipe perhaps. You can also just dry out the roots and crush them for flour. You’ll still need to remove the tough fibers though.
Make sure you harvest from clean waters.
High in carbohydrates.
Medicinal Uses of Bulrush
Bulrush is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Astringent and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes as an ingredient in poultices for stings, blisters, etc.
Alternative Uses of Club-Rush
Like cattail as well, bulrush has numerous utility uses. The long flexible stems can be woven into baskets, blankets, clothing, mats, shoes, toys – it’s mostly limited by imagination. They can be intermixed with cattail stems.
Bulrush can be cultivated by planting rhizomes a few feet apart near shorelines. In time some species will spread into deeper water, while others prefer shallow (e.g. validus). If you have shoreline it’s a wonderful idea to plant native species to inhibit soil erosion and provide vital habitat for our wildlife. Here’s a new page I’ve made about places you can buy native plants in Ontario.
You might also be able to establish it in spots like a wet ditch.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants
The Edible Wild