Monday, September 16, 2019

How to Eat a Bulrush

Softstem Bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani)
I don’t usually start an educational article by trying to prove how confusing something is, but bulrushes are a bane for many botanists and a nightmare for ethnographers. There are a few understandable reasons for this disdain. First, many of the species have close relatives that are challenging to differentiate from one another. For example, of eight common bulrushes in Western Washington, four have close look-a-likes that share similar habitat: Cottongrass Bulrush (Scirpus cyperinus) and Small Fruited Bulrush (S. microcarpus) both have leafy stems with 50-100 small spikelets; Maritime Bulrush (Bolboschoenus maritimus) and River Bulrush (B. fluviatilis) both have broadly triangular, leafy stems with 5-20 large spikelets; Hardstem Bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus) and Softstem Bulrush (S. tabernaemontani) both have round leafless stems; and American Threesquare (S. americanus) and Common Threesquare (S. pungens) both have triangular stems with only a couple leaves and flower heads. In fact, I had thought the last two names were synonyms for the same plant until I began writing this article. Secondly, bulrushes grow in marshes with thick mud that can pulls your boots off and choke you with rotten-egg stench, vegetation that can tear up your legs, and mosquitoes and leaches that can suck your blood. Who knows what other dangers lurk in murk. Finally, to make matters worse, both the common names and scientific names for bulrushes have not only changed frequently over time, but they have also been applied to the wrong species, or multiple species. Frankly, understanding bulrushes is messy business both literally and figuratively.

As my love for plants has grown, I have been increasingly drawn to challenging groups. While in college in Wisconsin, I became interested in the Cyperaceae—the family containing sedges and bulrushes—and spent three years experimentally restoring an old field to a sedge meadow for my senior capstone project. Naturally, native seeds were needed for this project, so I spent one day a week throughout the summer collecting sedge and bulrush seeds, efforts that earned me the title “Abe sedge seed.”

Despite this interest, I had never heard of any edible parts of bulrushes until a few years ago, when Sam Thayer excitedly told me about his first taste of River Bulrush (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis). He proclaimed the tuberous roots to be sweet and delicious raw. With piqued curiosity, I set out to better understand what is going on beneath our various bulrushes.

The species
With bulrushes, the old botanical mnemonic, “sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have joints [swollen nodes] all the way to the ground,” doesn’t hold the water they grow in. As members of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae), many bulrushes have the normal triangular cross section, but a few species have round stems, like the Rush Family (Juncaceae). However, there are easily discernible differences. Bulrushes (and sedges in general) have simplified flowers and seeds with a single scale below each flower. Each bulrush flower produces a single seed. By comparison, rushes have more developed flower parts with six tepals surrounding a capsule that contains multiple seeds.

As far as I know, the edible bulrushes are limited to three genera, Schoenoplectus, Bolboschoenus, and Cyperus. The former two have been split from the otherwise inedible genus Scirpus by most modern botanists, a treatment which suits me because their botanical differences have real world meaning. In this article, I describe the more common members of Schoenoplectus, Bolboschoenus, and Cyperus

Softstem Bulrush and Hardstem Bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani and S. acutus).
Softstem (L) and Hardstem (R) sections
These two herbaceous perennial species die back to a thick fleshy rhizome every year. Reaching 3-9’ in height, they are the tallest bulrushes in Washington and Oregon. They both have round stems that lack leaves altogether, and inflorescences that arise laterally on the stem. Strikingly similar, I find the best way to tell them apart is to feel the stems and cut them to examine their cross sections. Softstem Bulrushes compress easily, almost as if there is no pith inside; these spongy cells are loosely packed usually numbering about 5-12 across the diameter. In contrast, you can feel the pith push back when compressing Hardstem Bulrushes, and when sliced, they reveal much more tightly packed cells with 18-30 across the diameter. Those with a hand lens may also examine the scales below each seed. Hardstem Bulrush scales have a contorted awn at the tip and a midrib that is nearly the same color as the rest of the scale whereas those of Softstem Bulrush have a straight or only slightly bent awn and a highly contrasting midrib (Hitchcock). Both inhabit lakes, sloughs, marshes, and ditches throughout the Pacific Northwest. I usually see Softstem Bulrush more in estuarine salt marshes, and Hardstem Bulrush more in freshwater marshes and lakeshores, but they do not break cleanly along these habitat differences.

Sofstem Bulrush in saltmarsh

Hardstem Bulrush in fresh marsh

A third species, California Bulrush (S. californicus) grows in Oregon and California and looks similar to the others but has a slightly three-sided stem that can reach 12’ tall! Very few other plants in North America can grow as tall in a single growing season.

California Bulrush
Hardstem & Softstem Bulrushes

Maritime Bulrush, River Bulrush, and Sturdy Bulrush (Bolboschoenus maritimus, B. fluviatilis, and B. robustus)
Maritime Bulrush (left) and River Bulrush (right)
These three herbaceous perennials die back to thin rhizomes that produce hard nut-like over-wintering corms. They have leafy stems that are strongly triangular in cross section on the upper half but may have slightly rounded corners near the base. All three have terminal spikes of flowers and seeds, though leaf-like bracts often extend around and above their inflorescences. Distinguishing the three species is best done by examining their height, and characteristics of the spikes and seeds (achenes). Maritime Bulrush is usually 1-4’ tall with a compact clump of sessile spikes that are less than 1” long (although a few may be on short stalk) and 2-sided seeds. River Bulrush is a larger species at 3-5’ tall and has more loosely packed spikes that are greater than 1” long, and three-sided seeds that sink in water and have an elliptical profile. Sturdy Bulrush is 1.4-5’ tall with a loose clump of fat, cylindrical spikes that average about 1” long, and three-sided seeds with rounded tops that float on water.

Maritime Bulrush in saltmarsh
River Bulrush in estuary

Maritime Bulrush is very common in salt marshes at the low end of the high marsh, as well as sloughs and ditches near the ocean and along large river systems, from Vancouver Island southward with a disjunct population near Anchorage. River Bulrush is only found sporadically in the fresher and higher parts of estuarine marshes. I know it only from the mouths of the Stillaguamish and Samish Rivers, but herbarium records show it in a few other locations throughout our region. Sturdy Bulrush is only found in brackish marshes along the California coast, and in the Central Valley.

Maritime Bulrush
Sturdy Bulrush

River Bulrush

Chufa and Purple Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus and C. rutundus) die back to thin rhizomes that produce nut-like over-wintering tubers. They both have leafy stems that are strongly triangular in cross section, and sweet-scented foliage. Flowers are arranged neatly in two ranks forming flattened spikelets. These spikelets form open spikes on long stalks that look a little like chimney sweeps or bottle brushes. They are best differentiated from each other by the color of their flower bracts: yellowish in Chufa and purplish in Purple Nutsedge. Chufa is intolerant of salt water and evidently avoids the maritime climate near the ocean. In the Pacific Northwest, it appears to be limited to the large river drainages such as the Fraser, Nisqually, Columbia, Snake, Willamette, and Sacramento rivers with some records from small rivers and drainage ditches, especially outside of our area in Southern California. Purple Nutsedge is found in disturbed soils along agricultural fields and is evidently naturalized in California (Jepson eFlora).

Chufa at the Sacremento NWR

Harvest and Preparation
Edible rhizome of Softstem Bulrush
I have harvested Softstem Bulrush rhizomes in the middle of June and the end of August. In June the rhizome was ¾” thick by 3” long with white skin and very delicate flesh. When raw it was bland with no disagreeable flavors. In August, the rhizome was 1” thick by 5” long and had started to sprout next year’s shoot, indicating it was at full length. The skin was still white but the texture was much more firm. In cross section, the flesh looked very much like a cattail rhizome, except that the outer spongy layer was almost imperceptibly thin. Raw, the flavor was bland with a hint of sweetness; cooked it was even more bland and stained red for mysterious reasons (possibly a reaction with minerals in my well water?). Since few starches are all that good boiled alone, I conclude that these sizeable roots have promise as a source of calories that take even less time to process than cattails (but aren’t as tasty).

Peeled rhizome of Sofstem Bulrush

Edible rhizome core of Hardstem Bulrush
I harvested Hardstem Bulrush in early September. The rhizome was roughly an inch in diameter and more than a foot long with white skins and black triangular bracts at regular intervals. A cross section revealed a thin hard starch core surrounded by a thick layer of spongy tissue, exactly like a cattail rhizome. The core was easier to peal than a cattail rhizome and raw it had a mild sweet flavor with bitter aftertaste. The core was very fibrous. I suspect that the rhizome size, stringiness, and flavor all vary seasonally.

Edible corm and young stem of Maritime Bulrush
I harvested Maritime Bulrush corms in early and mid-June, early July, and early September. The edible portion is really the enlarged underground base of each plant that develops an egg-like shell over the course of the growing season. In early June, the corms were about 5/8” across with white skin and tender flesh that was deliciously sweet raw. By July the corms were 1” across and more pear shaped. The outer skins had blackened, but the shell of the corm was still white and soft enough to eat fresh. It was very sweet. In September the plants were senescing, and the corms had purplish black skin with a shell that was reddish brown. The shells and flesh were so hard it was difficult to cut them with a sharp knife. The flesh was white but too hard to eat raw or cooked. Perhaps at this late season it could be ground into flour. The Snow Geese root for these corms in the winter and use rocks in their gizzard to grind them into meal.

Hard corms of River Bulrush
My experience with River Bulrush is more limited to the late season (when they were hard as a rock), but their roots appear the same as Maritime Bulrush.

I have never eaten Chufa, so all I can do is pass on the anecdote that I hear they have tasty tubers.

Historical accounts concerning bulrush edibility are frustratingly difficult to attribute to a distinct species. I suspect this ambiguity is either the result of poor botanical knowledge on the part of ethnographers, leading them to unknowingly lump multiple species into a single account, or Indigenous groups using the same name for multiple species with very similar qualities. Many of the early accounts I review below use the common name tule. Tule usually refers to the tall species of bulrush (Softstem, Hardstem, and California Bulrushes), although confusingly, it is sometimes attributed to cattail (Typha spp.), which is not in the same plant family as the bulrushes. The word tule evidently comes from the Aztec word tullin or tollin for aquatic bulrushes- a word that was first adopted by the Spanish in Mexico and later by English speaking Americans (Small 2013). If using a twice borrowed common name for multiple species in two different plant families wasn’t befuddling enough, horsetails or “scouring rushes” (Equisetum spp.) are also confused in the ethnographic record under the common name “rush” (see Swan 1857 pg 88 and Eells 1885, 1985) and/or called by the same Indigenous name in some cultures (see Turner et al. 1990 pg 116). The similarities are numerous: bulrushes, cattails, and horsetail all grow in wetlands, have spongy, linear leaves that can be used in weaving, and several have edible roots.

Edward Curtis's photograph of Tule drying for basketweaving by the Cowichan People c. 1910.

On the topic of terminology, also note that I use the word “root” throughout this account to be consistent with the authors I quote. Botanists call an underground horizontal stem a “rhizome,” an underground storage organ a “tuber,” and an enlarged stem base a “corm.” Given these caveats, I present the following review of literature concerning edible bulrushes in the Pacific Northwest.

While traveling in the Columbia River watershed in Oregon and Washington in the early 1820s, the pioneering botanist David Douglas (1914) observed that the tender white shoots of a 4-10’ tall species of bulrush [making it either Softstem or Hardstem Bulrush] were eaten and “considered a luxury.” The sprouts of an undetermined species are also traditionally eaten by the Puyallup and Nisqually in Washington (Smith 1930).

Other early records come from Edward Curtis, the famous ethnographic photographer and author of the 20 volume series The North American Indian. Curtis had some knowledge of the various bulrushes and frequently documented the use of both tule and cattail, making it possible to be sure that he was differentiating the species. As if he were aware of the potential for confusion, he occasionally includes scientific names for cattail, Hardstem Bulrush, and Sturdy Bulrush. In California, he observed the tender, white, central shoot of Hardstem Bulrush being eaten fresh by the Klamath (1924, 13: 170, 273; although on pg 238, he apparently confuses this with Sturdy Bulrush), the Tolowa, Tutuni (1924 13: 99, 228, 247), and Lake Pomo (1924 14: 62). He describes tule as “a fairly important food” to the valley Maidu (1924 14: 107). He also recorded indigenous terms for edible “tule shoots” among the eastern and central Pomo (1924, 14: 188, 217), and “tule pith” among the Wappo (Curtis 1924, 14: 210) and Wiyot (1924 13: 267). The Northern Pomo eat the raw young shoots of Sturdy Bulrush (Welch 2013). In Utah, the young shoots of Hardstem Bulrush are also traditionally eaten by the Gosiute of Utah (Chamberlain 1911).

Hardstem Bulrush "root"
The roots of bulrushes are also traditionally eaten by many Indigenous Peoples. Accounts from northern groups are unfortunately ambiguous. The inland Dena’ina eat the thick, underground root of a large sedge that is described as looking like the bulb of an onion (Russell 2012) and is probably a bulrush. Steedman (1930), working from the notes of the botanist and ethnographer James Teit, noted that the thick fleshy rootstalks of one bulrush species were roasted and eaten by the Nlaka’pamux. The roots of a kind of “rush” were eaten by the Twana, Chemakum, Klallam, and other Native Americans in the Puget Sound (Swan 1857; Eells 1885, 1985), which could be a bulrush, cattail, or horsetail. The Quinault considered a bulrush species to be among their principle root foods, and steam cooked it (Curtis 1913 9:58).

Edible core of Hardstem Bulrush
The thick root of Hardstem Bulrush was widely eaten along the Pacific states (Harvard 1895). Botanist Robert Brown (1868) observed its use in California. Curtis also documented tule root use among many groups in Western North America including the Shasta, Achomawi (1924 13: 140, 230, 234, 257), Tolowa (1924 13: 247), Northern Wintun and Valley Patwin (1924 14:224), Valley Maidu (1924 14: 232), Diegueno (1925 15: 43, 180) and Hupa (1924 13:238). He elaborates that the fresh roots were “esteemed” by the Mono and Paviotso (15: 72, 169, 184), and that the “core of the underground stalks…were eaten raw (15: 63) by the Mono. The Yokuts “dependended mainly on tule-roots…. The dried roots of tule were roasted, pulverized, and formed into balls, which were baked in hot ashes or the flour might be cooked into mush (1924 14:157; 197).” The Chumash also ate the roots this way, or raw (Timbrook 2007).

Some useful details come from a 10 year-old who made news for her presentation of Shasta Indigenous Foods at the California State Fair. She was quoted saying “The [Native Americans] pull tule roots early in the spring while they are young and tender. They also dry them for winter use (Hollenbeak 1921).”

Another participant observer account comes from Thomas Jefferson Mayfield who was adopted by the Choinumni band of the Yokuts and lived with them for a decade in the 1850s. He provides exceptional detail about their use of tule. “They ate great quantities of young tule roots, which were soft and sweet. The lake Indians made an almost pure starch from tule…. [The roots were placed] into a large cooking basket and were covered with hot water. The mixture was stirred with the looped stirring stick for an hour or so. Then the rush roots were raked out and were thrown away. In an hour or two, the starch had settled to the bottom of the basket. The water was then poured off. They obtained in this way a cake of starch two inches in thickness (Mayfield 1993 pg 66-67).

The seeds of Hardstem Bulrush are sometimes used as food by the Klamath (Coville 1897) and the pollen may have been used by the Nlaka’pmux (Steedman 1930; see also Turner et al. 1990) and elsewhere in North America (Harvard 1895).

Throughout many accounts, the roots and young shoots of tule are described as being sweet raw. In fact, the leaves are capable of exuding sugar! In their book The Natural World of California Indians Heizer and Elsasser (1980) describe a sugar that is produced by bulrushes in arid climates. They elaborate that “this ‘sugar’ is the sweet excreta of aphids, which crystallizes and collects on the leaves of certain plants, especially Common Reed (Phragmites communis) and [Softstem Bulrush]. The plants were cut off at the base of the stem, placed on a flat tule mat, and beaten with sticks to dislodge the crystalline sugar. Winnowing by tossing the sugar and leaf bits on a flat basketry tray yielded the pure sugar, which was then dampened slightly and molded into balls. Such sugar, eaten as a treat or dessert, was a welcome change from the rather pallid staple, acorn mush.” General  J. Bidwell similarly describes a “honey” that is gathered from tule by the Native Americans in Nevada (Harvard 1895). The Mono and Paviotso obtained a “candy-like substance” from the dry leaves of Common Reed (Curtis 1926 15: 72).

The roots of Sturdy Bulrush were used by the Klamath (Curtis 1924 13: 170) and the roots of an unidentified bulrush were eaten raw or ground into a flour and cooked by the Costanoan (Bocek 1984). Interestingly, I could find no accounts that were definitively describing River or Maritime Bulrushes, despite the edibility of both species.

Accounts of Chufa are more precisely labelled by species. Victor Harvard (1895) in his Food Plants of North American Indians describes the small edible tubers of two species of Cyperus, the Chufa (C. esculentus L.) and the Nut-grass (C. rotundus L.) to be “sweet and palatable” and favored by Native Americans, but does not specify which groups. In California, both species are eaten raw or ground into a meal and cooked by the Paiute (Murphey 1990, Fowler 1989). The tubers of Chufa are also eaten by the Costanoan (Bocek 1984) Kashaya, and Pomo. The latter two traditionally eat them raw, baked, or boiled and describe their flavor as “crisp” and “nutty” (Goodrich et al. 1980). The tubers of other Cyperus species are traditionally eaten in the Desert Southwest and Southern California by the Acoma, Apache, Kamia, Keres, Laguna, and Pima (Moerman).

Brown, Robert 1868. On the Vegetable Products Used by the Northwestern American Indians as Food and Medicine.

Bocek, Barbara 1984. Ethnobotany of the Costanoan Indians. Based on the Collections by John P. Harrington.

Chamberlain, Ralph 1911. Ethnobotany of the Gosiute Indians of Utah.

Coville, Frederick 1897. Notes on the Plants Used by the Klamath Indians of Oregon.

Curtis, Edward 1913. The North American Indian Volume 9: The Salishan tribes of the coast. The Chimakum and Quilliute .The Willapa.

Curtis, Edward 1922. The North American Indian. Volume 12: The Hopi

Curtis, Edward 1924. The North American Indian. Volume 13: The Hupa. The Yurok. The Karok. The Wiyot. Tolowa and Tutuni. The Shasta. The Achomawi. The Klamath.

Curtis, Edward 1924. The North American Indian. Volume 14: The Kato. The Wailaki. The Yuki. The Pomo. The Wintun. The Maidu. The Miwok. The Yokuts.

Curtis Edward 1926. The North American Indian. Volume 15: Southern California Shoshoneans. The Diegeuenos. Plateau Shoshoneans. The Washo.

Douglas, David 1914. Journal Kept by David Douglas during his travels in North America.

Eells, Myron 1885. The Twana, Chemakum, and Klallam Indians of Washington Territory.

Eells, Myron 1985. Indians of the Puget Sound, The Notebooks of Myron Eells.

Goodrich, Jenni, Claudia Lawson, Vana Parrish Lawson 1980. Kashaya Pomo Plants.

Fowler 1990. Fowler, Catherine S., 1989, Willards Z. Park's Ethnographic Notes on the Northern Paiute of Western Nevada 1933-1940

Harvard, V. 1895. Food Plants of the North American Indians.

Heizer, Robert F. and Albart B. Elsasser 1980. The Natural World of California Indians.

Hitchcock, C. Leo and Arthur Cronquist 2018. Flora of the Pacific Northwest, an Illustrated Manual. 2nd Edition. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Hollenbeak, Evelyn 1921. Shasta Count Points the Way. Pacific Rural Press V 102 pg 349.

Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson 1993. Indian Summer: Traditional Life among the Choinumne Indians of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Murphey, Edith Van Allen 1990. Indian Uses of Native Plants.

Russell, Priscilla N. 2012. Tanaina Plantlore Dena’ina K’et’una. An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska. Alaska Geographic Association, Achorage AK.

Small, Ernest 2013. North American Cornocopia: Top 100 Indigenous Food Plants.

Smith, Marian 1930. The Puyallop-Nisqually

Steedman 1930. Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia.

Swan, James 1857. The Northwest Coast or, Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory.

Timbrook, Jan 2007. Chumash Ethnobotany.

Turner, Nancy J. Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990.  Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Memoir No. 3, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria BC

Welch, James 2013. Sprouting Valley: Historical Ethnobotany of the Northern Pomo from Potter Valley.


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  6. Hi Abe, I found you info and pic on maritime bulrush very helpful, will check out the base of the plant for corms early in July here on the east coast of canada. The seed seems a reasonable size to gather in the fall also. I've been interested in the edibleness of the sedges for a few year now, not much present date info circulating so happy to see your contribution available. Cheers

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